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From Film to Game to Training and Education: Is the Entertainment Model the eLearning Model?

I suppose that if my former students had a conference to pick 3 catchphrases for me, they would list:

  • Show, don’t tell.
  • Don’t think, do.
  • Rip and Redo.
  • .
    Today I want to focus on the first, “Show, don’t tell.” I guess that we all imagine we have a unique perspective once we reach a certain age. Heeding my father’s advice that there is no idea completely “new under the sun”, I’ll simply say that my experience is certainly unusual. I began my involvement with teaching and learning more than twenty years ago as a reluctant recruit, joining the faculty of a small Southwestern university in order to teach theatrical design and communications to largely rural but certainly not unsophisticated design students. I was roped in by a friend with the promise of easier hours and lazier days than the lightning-paced world of live theatrical production.

    Journey to Jefferson 2
    One of my scene designs for live stage, just in case you don’t believe me. 😉

    Of course it wasn’t true, but it began there. I point this out only to help explain that my initial training is in designing and writing for theater, television and film. Later, I became jointly fascinated with education (mostly because teaching was initially quite difficult for me) and with digital games. It’s logical then that narrative has been a constant interest for me in my diverse career – and that I have been lucky enough to benefit from an evolving understanding of ‘story’ from the perspective of several different industries.

    While teaching at the University of Georgia, about half of my load was in teaching dramatic writing (scriptwriting for film and stage.) I was inundated year after year with brilliant students who all had a similar problem to overcome. Writing for film requires an active voice and perspective. You have to describe what is currently happening, and what is currently seen from the perspective of an audience. Students generally try to write in novel format – passive and with no need to flavor the immediacy. This core problem, our traditional affiliation with passive tense definitions and exposition, plagued the video game industry for decades.

    A typical example of this would generally look something like this:
    You are Zandor, Warrior Prince of Hexadecimall. Your father’s kingdom was destroyed by the evil Krelbornes who roam the planet pillaging and raping innocent villages and fiefdoms. You mourned your father’s loss in the traditional way, burning his corpse on the high pillars of the Southern Temple and were attacked by Krelbornes while returning to your kingdom.

    Notice how the entire thing is passive, even though it may describe exciting events there is no immediacy and certainly no sense of self-involvement.

    In scriptwriting for film we would do it more like this:
    Zandor, 21, rugged and regal kneels at the base of a flare spitting pyre. Purifying flames release a shimmering spiral of particles from the body of the weathered king, his body vanishing among the smoke and flame. Expressions of vengeance and reverence wash Zandor’s face as mirrored echoes of the fire alight the tears streaming down his chiseled cheeks.

    In film we show the adventure and paint images of the action. In games we now tend to show small portions – mirroring this active film approach, then show and guide – dropping the player (Zandor) right into the action with minimal exposition. Need to tell the player his name? No problem, in a cinematic a guard says “Zandor, sire we must away – the Krelbornes approach from every direction.” Now we’re ready for a battle interaction.

    We’ve all seen some horrible game that begins with a 20 screen novella about the dark history of planet x and the plight of citizen y, painstakingly recounting the exposition of a story only to then drop us into an environment that really required no prior understanding. This weekend my daughter and I played a little Final Fantasy XIII and some Assassin’s Creed. Both feature interwoven, active narratives that are heavily rooted in the traditions of film. They were engaging, exciting and encouraged empathy with the characters as we navigated the various bits of each game.

    As I reflected on the weekend, I was struck with how very similar this evolution in game writing (from a fundamentally novel-oriented, passive view of game narratives, to the much more engaging, immediate and rewarding stories we see today) is to the dilemma many eLearning and Training authors face as they attempt to convert the information dumps of previous training and learning experiences into multimedia online eLearning.

    Is your eLearning solving a problem, or creating one?

    The fundamental paradigm of eLearning must be rooted in active, engaged and interactive experiences in order to encourage deep, meaningful learning and ultimately change behaviors, understanding and outcomes. But for most of us, our exposure to formal learning, teaching and training for a lifetime has been almost entirely rooted in didactic instruction and information delivery rather than experiences, discoveries and encounters. We do, however, all have many informal educational experiences that can serve as a foundation for understanding, and those experiences along with an understanding of the role of narratives and active / interactive engagement can form a solid platform on which we can mount our eLearning efforts.

    Cathy Moore is one of my favorite eLearning gurus. Check out this Slideshare Cathy put together with the amusing title “How to Save the World with eLearning Scenarios”. Don’t be frightened by the length, its a quick read – full of Cathy’s signature humor.

    In this slide deck, as with most of her writing, Cathy describes an goal centered approach that is achieved through activities. Information is simply a resource in this model, not the center point. By focusing on the primary goal, it is possible to come up with activities that echo the real world and because of that, knowledge transfer will be significantly better. People have problems every day. Generally those problems translate into teaching opportunities. When those problems align with organizational goals, we have a great opportunity for effective eLearning.

    And you know what’s cool? This alignment of activities to goals is essentially what happens in films, and what makes narratives possible in games as well. So you could easily argue that the fundamental narrative approach to screenwriting, adopted by game developers and producers to create more engaging games, is the same approach that should be used by eLearning authors and Instructional Designers when envisioning content for eLearning. By assuming the position that we, like film and game producers, are in need of a fundamental planning and preproduction writing style that is informal, active and goal oriented – we can move a long way toward eLearning that is more engaging, more relevant and which delivers a significantly better return on our investment thanks to better knowledge transfer and better behavioral outcomes.

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