I have found my feet. Literally. The new flexibility I’m enjoying with my business has allowed me to rediscover the benefits of walking. Especially walking in the countryside – through woods, away from the busy streets. Such apparently frivolous activity has tangible benefits: without wanting to state the absolutely obvious, it is good for you. Not just physically but mentally too.
Stephen Kaplan’s research (pdf) describes the benefit as Attention Restoration Theory. It states that interacting with nature dramatically improves cognitive function (compared to being in a urban environment). In a post on Science Blogs, Jonah Lehrer explains “that nature, unlike a city, is filled with inherently interesting stimuli (like a sunset, or an unusual bird) that trigger our involuntary attention, but in a modest fashion. Because you can’t help but stop and notice the reddish orange twilight sky – paying attention to the sunset doesn’t take any extra work or cognitive control – our attentional circuits are able to refresh themselves.” In contrast, urban environments demand our attention giving us little mental space to rest and reflect. In an article for the New York Times (pdf), Lehrer goes on to speculate that these same physio-neurological responses might also help us think up new ideas.
It’s an exciting thought. And obviously there’s no substitute for the real thing but it seems that we can fake it if necessary.
Dave Munger talks about replicating ‘natural’ environments inside rooms to improve the effects of a study break. Apparently even murals of natural scenes have a greater positive impact on our cognitive ability than the more normal window view of another building.
If it can work with murals, how else might we manufacture it? It’s made me wonder how else we could achieve these benefits in circumstances that are far away from those woody glades. And not just in physical spaces. Virtual ones too. The increasing busyness of our online lives gives us less time and space to concentrate on one thing, let alone reflect on it. This isn’t just about formal or informal learning online, it’s about satisfaction and meaning generally.
Maybe there are lessons we can draw from our ‘biophilia,’ the tendency to prefer natural things. Can we incorporate the textures, colours, sounds and rhythms of nature into digital content in a way that seduces our brains? Can we recreate nature’s ‘structure’ to improve our synthetic experiences? It’s an intriguing thought.
I think I need another stroll.
Electronic page turning is the bane of e-learning. The lazy tendency to translate traditional educational resources into the equivalent of online books undermines both the credibility and effectiveness of web-based learning because it ignores all the interactive potential of the medium. Pressing ‘Next’ to move on a screen is a dumb device to progress. It requires no thinking and simply assumes that user has ‘completed’ the screen. It often creates a situation when users blindly click next without even considering the content before them.
Having said that, in order to break up large amounts of content into more manageable chunks, users require some form of simple control. Many argue that it’s better to have more screens with less content on each than fewer screens weighed down with information.
For a project I’m working on at the moment, rather than resort to a Next button to move through material, we’re adapting a successful class technique championed by Doug Lemov of Uncommon Schools. He calls it “No Opt Out.” It’s the requirement that students must give the right answer. It’s a way of avoiding the demotivating and disengaging “Don’t know” response that often occurs when students are asked questions without warning. More often than not, the verbal shrug leaves the student abandoned as the tutor poses the question to someone else. Lemov argues that such an approach leaves lazy, timid or disengaged students behind – bad for the individual and bad for the class. In the face of such a response, he suggests a number of strategies:
It means that even if a student struggles initially, he always gives the right answer in the end. It’s a good, if tough, motivator.
I’m taking the principles of No Opt Out and applying them to controlling the progress through online content. Rather use static ‘next’ buttons, we’re embedding the functionality to move on into hotspots which are associated with clear call to action. The hotspots relate to content and users must demonstrate their understanding of material by identifying and clicking on the correct item. For example, users are asked to click on the only invertebrate in a collection of creatures to access the next screen. It’s a method that combines micro-assessment with navigation. It’s almost game-like in its presentation because of the ‘treasure hunt’ element to it. Indeed, by stripping the screen of obvious navigation controls and focussing on content, it promotes the discovery learning that characterises many games. It forces active engagement.
Of course it’s an approach that will irritate some users because of the apparent pettiness of the challenge but the one thing it will go some way to addressing is ensuring that the experience isn’t one of simply turning the page.
Following my series on narrative formats, I thought it worth thinking a little about the relationship between narrative, storytelling and games more generally.
Storytelling and narrative are central components in many forms of entertainment. In traditional dramatic media, the authored story engages the viewer emotionally through a set sequence of predetermined pieces of information, like beads on a string. If the term ‘story’ describes characters, events and plot, then ‘narrative’ describes how the story is told.
The relationship between narratives and games is well documented yet it remains contentious. At the heart of the stormy relationship is the apparent contradiction between predetermined storytelling and user control, and existing and emergent story lines.
At one end of the scale, the use of traditional narrative structures within games takes its inspiration from classic literature and Hollywood and delivers finely crafted, but largely fixed, story lines in which the player has a walled garden of opportunity. At the other end, hypertext narrative suggests stories that emerge entirely according to the user’s interactions with the game environment.
Commercial computer games rarely choose one of the extremes when approaching narrative. Instead, they seek to balance participation with presentation. This judgement is not purely artistic, there are serious pragmatic considerations with delegating control to the user or not. Given story lines provide context and player-character motivation as well as helping to control the pace of the user experience and providing respite in the activity. However, almost all single-player games structure play around a narrative containing a clear goal, some ultimate triumph and a defined finale.
‘Serious’ games have clear objectives for player achievement that are transferable to spaces outside the game world; they are rarely ends in themselves but mechanisms to improve skills in other domains. Serious games tend to provide virtual facsimiles of their target environment and its behaviour to facilitate easier transfer. Central to this portrayal is the structured, and therefore restricted, presentation of events, actions and consequences: within serious games, the role of the narrative becomes more pronounced.
However it is not just games, serious or otherwise, that benefit from the effective combination of storytelling and control. Just about any activity that involves communication benefits from the right balance between receiving and doing. Get it right and the user feels part of the experience, get it wrong and they remain separate and disengaged.
So far as we’ve considered interactive narratives, all the models have had one thing in common – a predetermined ending. Like it or not, the authors of the experience have, more or less, decided when it ends. Dynamic narratives offer users object-oriented storytelling which extends for as long as the user wants or the narrative elements allow.
These dynamic experiences may contain discrete storylines (in the form of implicitly linked events) but have multiple connections to other event nodes built into them. This allows the user to construct a narrative at will and where the relationship between characters or the plot revelation unfolds unpredictably.
This model potentially provides a high degree of personalisation because it opens the door to optional elements. Of course, you may want all users to see all the pieces regardless of the sequence but this ‘pick and mix’ approach is the essence of user-defined journey. In learning terms, this is illustrates the user’s ability to choose components between an initial diagnostic and a summative assessment.
Finally, experiences without end. In games such The Sims, without declared goals or a finite number of prepared events, there can be an implied or emerging narrative as stories evolve from a dynamic play environment. These open-ended experiences develop a continuing story through the behaviour and interactions of characters and forces within the milieu. The unfolding events are entirely determined by user actions and world rules – that is things happen according to fixed algorithms but are conditional on unpredictable use.
Although simulations and game worlds may not contain pre-authored dramatic events, they create their own storylines. Lisbeth Klastrup describes them as “tellable events…which would retrospectively make good stories” (pdf). In these unending stories, the user can play forever but it is arguable that without the imposition of goals, the experience never reaches a satisfying conclusion – something that a good author always delivers.
The whole Interactive Narrative series is:
As an alternative to the different routes between common events offered by parallel paths, non-linear narratives offer the user the chance to control the order of the stages between the beginning and the end of the experience.
Again all the content is predefined but the user can sequence the material in a manner of their choosing, rather like connecting assorted lengths of pipe. Although every viewer receives the same introduction to the narrative and, in most cases, the same ultimately successful conclusion, they choose their own route through the elements.
Each story segment has to be self-contained without any dependency on prior experiences because of the inability to know where the user is coming from but collectively the elements work like a jigsaw puzzle to present the full picture. Puzzle adventures such as Myst demonstrate this approach by offering a free roaming experience through related challenges. Only at the end, when all the pieces have been explored is the storyline fully understood and the conclusion sensible.
The random rearrangement of elements is the basis for films such as Momento and, more recently, Inception but in traditional media it is the author who determines the sequence. If they do it well, they seed each sequence with sufficient clues to simultaneously reward and tease the viewer. These gentle interdependencies help reinforce the experience. The educational thinker John Dewey identifies the educational importance of continuity by arguing that every experience takes something from previous events and modifies the perception of those that come afterwards. Most valuable experiences only “live fruitfully and creatively in subsequent experiences” he says in his book Experience and Education (p28) [summary].
The crucial aspect of this non-linear model is its ultimate need for completeness: although it doesn’t matter what order the user examines the content, for it to make sense, they have to see it all.
The whole Interactive Narrative series is:
Parallel paths overcome some of the production challenges of a strict branching narrative by reducing the total number of tracks down to just two. This limits the options even further than the constrained branching narrative model but still allowing a level of user choice.
Parallel paths offer the user two distinct paths and ‘junctions’ where the tracks combine. This allows the user to experience consequences of his chosen actions but returns him to predetermined points where the story can advance in a more managed way. By hopping from node to node like this, the user has a high sense of control even if his experience shares much with that of other users. For example, BioShock allows users to decide on one of two strategies: ‘Kill Little Sister’ or ‘Save Little Sister.’ Each option has a unique set of challenges and consequences but the paths come back together at key points in the game, allowing the user to continue with their chosen course or switch approach.
One advantage of the parallel paths approach is that it can, as illustrated by BioShock, offer the user the choice between ‘Good’ and ‘Evil’ paths. This provides the opportunity for presenting alternative perspectives whether that’s a moral choice or as mundane as a customer-seller viewpoint. In that respect it has a significant level of replayability because the user’s understanding of the environment as a whole is enhanced by the alternative approach.
The whole Interactive Narrative series is: