7 questions about branching scenarios

While writing a branching scenario about absence management as a proof-of-concept for simulating difficult conversations, I found that I needed to answer some basic questions.

1. What is a branching scenario?

A branching scenario is a story, but one which is presented to you step by step, and in which what happens next is dependent on the choices you make – like the old “chose-you-own-adventure” gamebooks, only digital. (Related concepts: interactive fiction, hypertext fiction, adventure games.)

2. What use is a branching scenario?

In education or training, a branching scenario can enable learners to practice or test their skills. The scenario will be based on a workplace situation, like a case study but with the addition of interactivity: learners are required to go through the steps and make the decisions themselves. In this sense, a branching scenario is comparable to virtual reality, which may be useful in training where the situations are physical and the skills required are visual; but in human situations where the skills required are communicative, a text-based branching scenario will usually be more appropriate, as well as considerably cheaper to produce.

3. How can people learn from a branching scenario?

The big advantage of a branching scenario is that learners are engaged right away. A realistic practical situation, of a kind that learners might actually have to deal with, presents them with a challenge they can’t ignore. Furthermore, unlike a case study or set of process instructions, in which it’s too easy to think that the learning points are obvious, learners are forced to remember or work out what to do at each step. The relevance and the difficulty of the challenge are evident.

At its heart, a branching scenario enables learning by doing, by providing a simulated environment in which learners can practice and make errors safely. A scenario can also include feedback for the learners’ choices, ideally built into the narrative, to complete the learning cycle.

4. How do you prevent the tree becoming massive?

Say you provide three choices at the first decision point, and each of those branches leads to another three choices and so on. After three decision points there will be 27 branches, after four decision points there will be 81, and after five decision points there will be 243! How can you possibly write so many storylines?

The answer is, of course, that you don’t. You don’t need to cover every possible choice which a learner might make, just those mistakes which a learner is most likely to make in a real situation. (The need to simulate errors follows directly from active learning theory, but it nevertheless needs emphasising because of subject-matter experts usual tendency to focus solely on the correct course of action. See my blog post “What should a simulation simulate?”)

In my absence management scenario, the main mistakes which I wanted to include were: failing to prepare properly for a return-to-work interview with Pam, a frequently-absent member of staff; not holding the interview in a private meeting room; and challenging Pam on the genuineness of her sickness when there’s no conclusive evidence of her malingering.

5. How do you prevent the choices being obvious?

The problem here is the same as with multiple-choice questions: since the correct choice has to be in plain view, learners don’t need to think of it for themselves, so doesn’t this remove the challenge if all they need to do is recognise it?

The answer is that you can make the target choices less obvious by careful wording, so that recognising them as correct requires understanding of the situation and thinking through the implications of the choice. For example, in my absence management scenario, the choice which I gave learners was not between “Go to a meeting room” and “Don’t go to a meeting room” but between the dialogue lines “Come and sit down for a chat” and “We need to have a proper talk”. Because I’ve already established that you’re in an open plan office, the first option should be easily recognised as inappropriate if you’re thinking properly about the difficult conversation you’re about to have with Pam, yet the second option isn’t shouting its correctness.

It’s worth bearing in mind that there are many narrative games (see for example Life is Strange 2, Heaven’s Vault, Tacoma, Tales from the Borderlands) which are successful in creating both challenge and surprise, despite being effectively based around multiple choice options. And since our aim is education and training, even an obviously wrong choice may prompt thought and hence learning. In my absence management scenario, for example, learners are repeatedly presented with the option of bottling out of doing a return-to-work interview with Pam. (The team is under pressure, deadlines are looming, and the temptation to focus on tasks at hand is strong.) This is fairly obviously incorrect, and yet its inclusion serves to make the point that determination and a conscious decision may be necessary to carry through with a difficult conversation they would rather not have.

6. Can’t learners just try every choice until they get it right?

The whole point of a branching scenario for education or training is that learners should be learning to think differently and better, so if they’re making choices at random or systematically working their way through the choices then something is wrong with the design.

There are several ways of encouraging learners to think about their choices. The most important is to embed feedback into the scenario as far as possible, so that they can quickly get a feeling for whether a past choice was good, bad or neutral. For example, in my absence management scenario, if you remain in the open plan office and start to ask Pam about her illness and whether she has any problems with work colleagues, then the text will tell you that you wish you’d gone to a meeting room and Pam will cut the interview short. (The excellent Cathy Moore has a blog post about the importance of feedback being embedded, rather than delivered by the Voice of God.)

Another trick, which can be used to force learners to prioritise, is to impose a limit on the number of alternative choices which can be pursued. For example, in my absence management scenario, the preparation choices before the return-to-work interview are: ask a colleague for advice, look at HR guidance, check Pam’s absence record, look for her self-certification forms, or do nothing – but there’s an artificial time limit which means you can only do one of these things. (Spoiler: all are informative, but you can’t achieve the best possible ending without checking Pam’s absence record and printing it out, which enables you to confront her with just how often she’s been off sick.)

A third technique, which as well as being realistic makes systematic exploration of choices more difficult, is to have the availability of certain choices dependent on other choices made earlier. In a healthcare scenario where you’re interviewing a patient, for example, certain dialogue choices would only appear if you’ve previously read the case notes and talked to other professionals so that you know to ask about those topics.

7. How does a branching scenario end?

Many narrative games now include a number of distinct endings, and in imitation of this I planned my absence management scenario to have five: you fail to deal with Pam’s absenteeism problem, you attempt to hold a return-to-work interview but get nowhere with it, you accuse Pam of faking illness whereupon she gets angry and makes a complaint of bullying, you get her to agree to obtain doctor’s certificates for any future sickness absence, and – the best ending – you confront her with her absence record and get her commitment to improve.

If you expect or want learners to replay a scenario, then they should be enabled and motivated to do so. In my absence management scenario, I did this by finishing it with feedback on the main choices taken and suggesting that a good ending was possible. I also put in two restart links: one to restart from the beginning of the scenario and one to restart from the beginning of the conversation with Pam.

I wrote the absence management scenario as a demonstration piece, a proof-of-concept, and it’s confirmed for me that branching scenarios of this kind have great potential for education and training in communications and people-management skills. They’re not a substitute for didactic presentation or for formal assessment, but because of their potential to engage learners and to encourage them to think differently and better about practical human problems, I believe they should be part of the genre library of all producers of training materials.

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