I am often asked if an instructional or training game should be “realistic” or can the game have “fantasy” elements and still be an effective learning tool. It turns out that there are several valid and research-based reasons for including fantasy as a key element in the design of games to help people learn.
In the 1980’s Thomas Malone wanted to investigate why games are so much fun and motivational. He conducted a study that looked at a number of games and dissected, as researches do, the elements of fun. Through this process he developed a model for looking at motivation in games and he developed an idea of what made those games fun to play, or, in other words, motivating. He identified three elements that make games intrinsically motivating: Challenge, Curiosity and Fantasy. He wrote that fantasy was key element to making an instructional game motivational.
There are both cognitive and emotional reasons for evoking fantasy.
Cognitively a fantasy can help a learner apply old knowledge to understand new things. The learner can take what they know about a subject like negotiation and apply their skills in a new setting within a game to see how those skills work in a different contexts. This allows for the safe testing of a skill and reinforcement of that skill. In most adult learning situations, we are not designing a game to teach them something completely new, instead we are typically trying to improve skills or have the learners apply skills at a higher level of performance. So fantasy helps in this situation.
If the learner is applying the same cognitive schema within a fantasy-based game that they would within the actual work setting, the skills they are learning or reinforcing are indeed transferred. So the important aspect is to create a fantasy setting in which the same cognitive schema and tasks are required in the game as are required in the actual learning environment.
Again, when using fantasy in game design, it is not only the skills themselves that are important to be gained from game; it is also the underlying cognitive schemas the trainees create that allow them to apply and adapt those skills. Focus the fantasy on helping the learner create the right schema.
Another cognitive advantage of fantasy is provoking vivid images related to the material being learned to improve memory of the material. This is related to the concept of Episodic Memory. The concept of Episodic Memory is when a person is able to remember certain times and places because they have particular meaning such as a major sports event, a reunion with lost relatives or even a particularly compelling instructional event. Episodic memories are stored in such a way that each memory is identified by a personal “tag.” Typically, such memories are recalled through association with a particular time or place and tend to be vivid as they are recalled. A fantasy-based game can help to evoke these types of memories.
Additionally, fantasy tends to evoke curiosity. If a game simply mimics the elements of real-life, on-the-job situations a learner might know what is going to happen at the end “a sales is made or lost” but with fantasy, the element of unknown or surprise can evoke curiosity. Fantasy-based game environments can evoke a learner’s curiosity by providing an optimal level of informational complexity and a novel and exciting game space.
Emotionally, a fantasy-based game can allow a person to connect with the learning experiences and not bring with it “real-world” concerns or fears. This means that they don’t think to themselves “this is negotiation training with clients and I’ve never done well negotiation with clients.” Instead, they consider the fantasy environment and work within that environment and then, the instructions can help them transfer those skills to the real-world.
So those are some reasons to include fantasy in your next instructional game. One note of caution however is that you don’t need to add fantasy to everything and, at some point, you need to allow the learner to rehearse the desired behavior in a real or realistic setting. Think of the fantasy learning game as one point on the continuum to total application of the learned skills, attitude, behavior or knowledge.
Gredler, M. E. (1997) Learning and Instruction: Theory into Practice. 3rd Ed. Prentice Hall: Upper Saddle River, NJ.
Hahn, S. H. (2010). Transfer of training from simulations in civilian and military workforces: Perspectives from the current body of literature. Retrieved January 16, 2013 from ADL Web Site.