The Elden Ring of learning design: What gaming can show us about the learning journey, by LN member Colin Humphreys

When we think about games and learning, we naturally lean into the concept of gamification. But we can learn more from the people who make games. Game makers have mastered the art of learning design. As part of their design, developers build and embed complex mechanics quickly and easily in their players.

In “triple A” gaming (the big budget titles of the gaming industry – think The Last of Us, Elden Ring, Mass Effect etc.), there is constant need to innovate. Each new game will do something special and different, Introducing new mechanics and tools not seen before to help you solve puzzles and challenges.

But developers must teach you how to use them.

They don’t teach you the very basics. They expect you to know what a controller is, just as we should expect our learners to know to press “next” to move onto the next screen of an eLearning course.

But if game makers fail at conveying the information their gamers need, players aren’t going to play the game. They’ll probably ask for a refund.

So how do they do it?

Let’s use the game of the year 2022, Elden Ring as an example…

A little context, if you already know about Elden Ring just skip this bit:

Elden Ring is a Role Playing Game (RPG) in which you play as a protagonist whose job is to unravel the mysteries of the Lands Between, a fantasy setting developed and designed by none other than George R.R. Martin of Game of Thrones fame.

It’s made by Japanese developer FROM SOFTWARE, a developer known for its unforgiving, relentless and complex game design that requires players to have complete mastery of the game to succeed.

Many a television has been destroyed by a gamer hurling their controller in frustration at it whilst playing one of their games.

But even this heartless developer knows the benefit of teaching people how to play their games. And here’s what I’ve taken away from their approach.

1. Seek consent: Don’t patronise existing knowledge.

If you’re already a skilled player of games of a similar genre, forcing you to engage with the tutorial content will just lead to frustration and annoyance.

Those are the last feelings you want to engage with when you’re right at the start of an epic journey.

Elden Ring avoids this by making the whole tutorial optional. A player must voluntarily jump into a hole in the ground to experience it. If they choose not to do this, then the game will continue uninterrupted.

They know that some of their audience will have played their similar games from the past, and already know what they need to know. Why force them to do it again?

By giving them choice, developers are respecting their player’s time. They’re telling them that they have something to teach, but if you already know about this kind of stuff you can just go and do it.

My takeaway:
Give knowledgeable learners the chance to “opt out” of stuff they already know. They do it anyway, just by rampantly clicking “next” without reading a single word of copy. We’re just wasting time, and annoying them.

2. Tell them what you want.

Developers aren’t shy when there’s something they need you to know.

Elden Ring interrupts the action during the tutorial with a text box that tells the player what they need to do next and what combination of controls leads to that outcome.

Need to bash a skeleton over the head? That’ll be the RB button. They’ll also include artwork or a short gif that demonstrates the behaviour in action, just so you know what to expect.

My takeaway:
Sometimes we’ll use flowery language or metaphors to make a point. But should we just get to the point? Simple and direct language will communicate things more effectively.

3. Once you’ve taught them something, make them use it immediately.

OK, so you’ve just been shown how to bash a skeleton over the head by pressing RB? Guess what’s around the corner…

Game developers know that they can’t just tell or show you how to do something. Once you’ve seen it, you’ve got to do it.

It’s why games don’t come with instruction manuals any more. They didn’t help you in the actual doing.

My takeaway:
Give learners the space to immediately practice “the thing”. We can’t expect people to master a skill just because they’ve read about it.

4. Don’t be afraid to put the highest wall in the way. Force them to knock it down.

You face your first “boss battle” at the end of the tutorial, and you reach the first true wall of the game.

This enemy is far, far more powerful than anything you’ve faced before now.

There is no way forward, no way to continue on.

The only way to proceed is to face it with all the skills you’ve learned. You need to use all the different ways to bash, dodge, roll, block and parry to defeat this foe.

If you haven’t mastered these skills, you’re going to struggle and it’s going to be hard.

And you haven’t mastered them. Because you only started playing 20 minutes ago.

FROM SOFTWARE know this. In fact, they’re known for it.

It is here that Elden Ring imparts its most valuable lesson:

  • You will fail.
  • You will fail often.
  • And you must expect it.

You will face this powerful enemy 100 times, and you will make clumsy mistakes that will end your poor character’s life 100 times.

But over those 100 times, you will gain experience.

You’ll learn the enemy’s pattern of attack, discover the gaps in their defence, and roll out of their way when you need to.

And if you continue learning, you’ll win.

Now, how good do you think it feels when you defeat that boss after the 101st attempt?

My takeaways:

  • True learning isn’t easy. It’s a challenge.
  • The path to success is paved with 100 failures.
  • Don’t be afraid to give learners the opportunity to fail, and fail spectacularly.

Just like the tutorial, we are only at the very start of what gaming can teach us about making deep and meaningful interactive learning experiences. But we can master the basics, respect our learners and help them discover and practice what they need to know in a way that helps them discover it for themselves.

Try it yourself the next time you play a game. Any game, be that a triple A on an Xbox or a casual game of Wordle.

How have the games you play taught you their own rules along the way? And how can you use that in your own design?