The Little-Known Surprise That Improves Learning in Serious Games

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7 December 2012
Game Design
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Erik Van der Spek conducted a study which was published within the British Journal of Educational Technology. Van der Spek and his peers at the University of Utrecht used a model of the game Half Life 2 to develop a training scenario.

The most memorable films and books tend to be the ones that involve intricate plot twists and turns. The endings we remember are the most surprising ones, such as Bruce Willis’s character in The Sixth Sense discovering his own shocking identity, or Darth Vadar revealing that he is Luke’s father in The Empire Strikes Back. We like to be wrong footed by the unexpected in cinema and television.

No way! Darth Vader cannot be Luke’s father?

Caspian Learning utilises this element of surprise to good effect. We apply serious game design filters to storyboards, in order to create a highly engaging and immersive experience for the learner. By using surprise as a key element, we believe we can enhance attention levels and increase re-playability, resulting in an indirect learning performance driver. We also consciously focus on designing game mechanics that act as a direct method in surprising the learner, which improves their performance.

So why do we do this?

A variety of experiments (Campion et al, 2009) that analyse text comprehension show that it can be improved by narratives containing surprising elements. Surprise is therefore a useful tool for engaging the learner. But why is this?

Being immersed in a scenario makes us construct a situation in order to better understand and act within the scenario. We think about relationships between characters, their roles and objectives and how these evolve through the scenario. We update the situation model as we journey through the scenario.

Because we all have strong points of view that are unique to us as individuals, we seek information that confirms how we view the world. Any information that doesn’t match the situation model we have created may be ignored by us. We might even use it to polarize our views. Experiments into the extreme political views of certain individuals will show this polarization.

Surprises in scenarios challenge our perceptions of the world. We will question the situation model that we have created in order to understand what is going on. In doing this, we delve beneath surface level activities. Learners have to embrace and engage in deeper learning processes so that they can compare, contrast and dissect the information presented to them (Graesser et al, 2009).

A Surprising Event! Challenges our situational model, creates uncertainty, requires us to think and is emotional

Surprising events in narratives need to contain certain properties, in order that the learner finds them compelling enough to question their situation model. These properties include:

  • Relevance. For example if Homer Simpson performed a dance within an IT consulting training meeting this would indeed be a surprise, but it would not be particularly relevant.
  • Being distinctive. The learner needs to genuinely be wrong footed by the event.
  • Contrasting with the situation model of the individual, and providing information that shows this.
  • Raising the emotional interest of the student.

So, a surprising event must challenge the situational model we have created and plant uncertainty in our minds, as well as emotion, necessitating a deeper level of thought within us.

How do we utilise this within serious game design?

Erik Van der Spek conducted a recent study which was published within the British Journal of Educational Technology. Van der Spek and his peers at the University of Utrecht used a model of the game Half Life 2 to develop a training scenario. The object was for learners to take on the role of medical first responder within the game.

The training scenario involved a subway platform under terrorist attack, which resulted in mass casualties. The play was required to attend to the victims and check their medical conditions and diagnoses, resulting in an understanding of the level of care required.

Screenshots from ‘Code Red Triage’ – copyright Erik van der Spek

Van der Spek and his colleagues created an innovative design to this scene, which contained surprising elements. They then proceeded to measure the scene’s impact on the learner’s performance and immersion. By clever design, the researchers noted key moments when unexpected information contrasted with the players’ previous understanding of the game.

Three surprising elements were designed for this experiment, but each player was only exposed to one of these event manipulations.

The elements themselves were ‘cut scenes’ occurring at critical moments of the scenario. Cut scenes are narratives that cannot be interacted with, but must be observed only. One of these cut scenes was an event called ‘neck trauma’.

Screenshots from ‘Code Red Triage’ showing the user interface for players when interacting with victims of the attack – copyright Erik van der Spek

This particular scene involved the 13th victim standing in front of the player, with his back towards them. When the player approached, the cut scene began and the camera began shaking. There was a rumbling sound to accompany this, followed by a large chunk of ceiling falling onto the victim’s head. The victim screamed and collapsed to the ground.

This cut scene example reflects the necessary elements needed to engage the learner; distinctiveness, relevance, uncertainty and emotion. Because of its surprise, the element challenges the learner’s actions and forces them to re-evaluate their approach.

Van der Spek’s experiment was successful in demonstrating how carefully designed elements of surprise can improve learning outcomes. The experiment recorded learners’ scores and gave them a structural knowledge assessment of the game scenario. The result of the study shows that introducing little unexpected events within a serious game does lead to a deeper comprehension of the material and to model construction on a mental level.

The study carried out did not show any adverse effects on the engagement, but rather that it was enhanced and heightened by the surprising events.

Erik Van der Spek’s study is an important one, because such controlled studies of the serious game genre are rare within literature. These researchers have identified new methods and specific mechanics that can be used to improve the learner’s performance in serious games.

We recommend Van der Spek’s PhD thesis for further reading:

and interaction with the game, using emotion, relevance, distinction and contrast.

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