The Story Arc Model: Combining Simulation and Story to Create Memorable Learning

Written By

Jack McGrath

April 30, 2013

When you think of the word “simulation,” what comes to mind? Some people instantly think of screen capture tutorials. Others might think of medical simulations, interacting with a patient or medical equipment. Others might think of military simulations. But what you probably don’t think of is story.

When I began my career 20 years ago, I was designing some of the earliest CD-ROM based simulations for the US Navy. These experiences involved free-play interactions that used sophisticated algorithms, variable tracking, and multipathing. And they were very daunting for instructional designers to create. With all of the variables, I was constantly faced with the challenge of how to storyboard and how to make sure the simulation was effective.

Back when I was designing these early simulations, I was also a playwright, creating stories with intricate plot twists, conflicts, and complications. And over the years, I’ve come to realize that these two disciplines are not mutually exclusive. In fact, by designing simulations around story, instructional designers can more easily create engaging simulations that align with learning objectives.

The traditional simulation model

Imagine you want to create a simulation for sales training. The first step the salesperson must accomplish is to establish rapport with the prospect. A traditional simulation would involve displaying the learning objectives, and then introducing the “initial conditions”—the beginning state of the simulation. During the “establish rapport” step, the learner completes an action or makes a decision. But how do you storyboard this? Often this is where instructional designers end up creating multiple choice selections, where the learner receives remediation and is either directed to the correct choice or remediated and advanced automatically.

This single path experience is easier to design, but often does not truly reflect a real-world scenario (Figure 1). Without some degree of multipathing, the learner never really experiences the consequences of his or her actions. The objective of this type of simulation becomes merely selecting the correct answer to each prompt.

Figure 1: A single-path experience is easy to design, but it often doesn’t resemble what happens in the real world

The story arc simulation model

Based on the Freytag pyramid, the story arc simulation model is the basic model for dramatic storytelling (Figure 2). The pyramid begins with an inciting incident: Something happens to establish the action. At that point, there is conflict that leads to crisis, and then there is a resolution. Since Aristotle’s Poetics, this structure has been the basis for storytelling for the last 2,400 years.

Figure 2: The Freytag pyramid describes the usual structure for dramatic storytelling

In her book Resonate, Nancy Duarte also refers to the Freytag pyramid. But instead of inserting story into the arc, as her sparkline model does, the story arc simulation model creates story through a series of interactive scenes. Each scene involves one or more objectives, and the decision points create the arc of the simulation.

Here, the sales simulation story begins with an inciting incident. Your prospect is resistant. You sense that they are in a hurry and not really interested in your product. What do you do? The learner needs to address the conflict by making a decision that will result in consequences.

Instead of thinking of the simulation as a series of possible steps, actions, and algorithms, think instead of scenes. Imagine a situation that demonstrates the objective in the real world. If we’re in scene 1, a salesperson could overcome this resistance and establish rapport. Or they could rush past this step to the sale and lose the prospect’s interest.

Knowing these outcomes, you create a Freytag pyramid for each of those objective-driven scenes (Figure 3). On the resolution side of the pyramid, you would write three different endings. To control the number of paths, you might create an effective response, a bad response, and an average response path. In some cases the bad response may result in the prospect losing interest and throwing the sales person out of the office. Great! In that simulation, you’ve created a path where learners can apply the objectives and experience the consequences in a real-world way.

Figure 3: In the story arc simulation model, the designer creates multiple endings for each scene, showing each of several possible resolutions

If you think of the simulation in terms of dramatic scenes, rather than a series of steps, it’s easier to design the simulations. Each path could take you to different versions of the simulation. While this type of multipathing does take more time, designing by the scene is a much easier way to storyboard truly effective simulations.

To learn more about the story arc simulation model, check out my session at the upcoming eLearning Guild Online Forum, Simulations for eLearning: Best Practices for the Almost-real World, on May 9 and 10.

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