Surprise! How Using Uncertainty in Serious Games Improves Learning
For many of us, the most memorable films, TV shows and books are those that include unexpected plot twists and surprising events. The film Sixth Sense where Bruce Willis’ psychologist character realizes that he is actually one of the dead people; Star Wars and the shocking revelation that Darth Vader is Luke’s father; in the Usual Suspects a crippled man named Verbal Kint turns out to be Keyser Söze, the master criminal.
At Caspian Learning we utilise the element of surprise as one of the five key design filters we apply to initial serious games storyboards. Partly, this is to craft a more engaging experience for the learner; one that will increase learner attention levels and replayability. This is important, but can be seen as an ‘indirect’ driver of learning performance. More importantly, we consciously design game mechanics that surprise the learner as a direct method to improve learning performance.
There are very good reasons for doing this. A number of experiments have shown that comprehension of text can be improved by including surprising events in the narrative (Campion et al, 2009). Why does the element of surprise have this effect?
It appears that when we are engaged in a scenario we construct a situation model through which we seek to understand and act. For example, the relationships between individuals, what objectives and roles individuals have and how this may change. This situation model is updated as we work through the scenario.
However, as humans we are strongly wedded to our points of view. We will look for information that confirms our view of the world. When we receive information that does not fit with our situation model, we may often choose to ignore it, or even use it to polarize our view. This has been shown in experiments featuring individuals holding extreme political views on the left or right of the spectrum.
When we encounter a surprise in a scenario it grabs our attention and forces us to question the situation model that we have formed. In performing this action, the leaner must go beyond surface learning activities. Instead they must engage in deeper learning processes to compare, contrast and synthesize information presented with this event (Graesser et al, 2009).
For a surprising event to be able to compel the learner to reflect upon their model it needs to have certain properties:
- It should be relevant. So, Homer Simpson dancing in the middle of a financial consulting training experience would qualify as a surprise, but not particularly relevant to the learning
- It needs to be distinctive and not what the student expected at that point in time
- It must provide information that contrasts with the persons situation model
- Ideally, it should also raise the student’s emotional interest
How should this be utilized in Serious Games design? This question is the focus of a recent study by Erik Van der Spek published in the British Journal of Educational Technology. Erik and his colleagues at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands used a mod of the game Half Life 2: Episode Two to create a training scenario in which students undertake the role of a medical first responder.
In the training scenario a terrorist attack has been perpetrated in a subway platform resulting in a mass casualty incident; the player must approach victims and should roughly perform checks to diagnose the patient’s condition and the level of care that they require.
In an ingenious design, Erik and colleagues inserted surprising events into the games for some players and then measured the impact on learning performance and engagement levels. In designing these events, the researchers identified key moments in which new information to some extent contrasted the previous notions of the player. In total they designed three different surprising events. Players that were selected for the surprising event manipulation would only get to experience one of the three surprising event versions.
The surprising events took the form of short ‘cut scenes’ that occurred at certain points in the scenario – these are cinematic events that the player can observe only. As an example, below is a description of the surprising event named ‘neck trauma’:
“the 13th victim in the game is standing upright, with its back turned toward the player. The moment the player approached the victim, the cut scene started. Here, the camera starts shaking and a rumbling sound is played. A large piece of ceiling debris came crumbling down and fell on the victim’s head, which produced a startled scream before collapsing to the ground”
This intervention I think ticks the boxes of relevance, distinctiveness, uncertain information and emotion. The surprising event in this case changes the actions that the user should undertake and compels them to rethink their approach.
The results of the experiment demonstrated that well designed surprising events improved learning outcomes. The study recorded scores within the game scenario and also gave the students a post game structural knowledge assessment. The study shows that introducing small surprising events in a serious game leads to improved deep comprehension of the instructional material. The surprising events were shown to significantly improve mental model construction as evidenced by the structural knowledge assessment.
This also did not have an adverse effect on engagement. Players indicated a similar level of engagement and higher levels of perceived ‘presence’ in the surprising events condition.
Controlled studies of Serious Games are relatively rare in the literature. Erik Van der Spek has broken new ground in seeking to identify specific mechanics and methods that can be used in Serious Games to improve learning performance. I recommend that you read Erik’s PhD thesis that can be found here:
For those of us designing and implementing Serious Games and Immersive Simulations then surprise and plot twist are elements that we must include in our design tool box.