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How to Write Effective Distractors for Your Scenario-Based Training Game

by Carrie Wiser, Senior Instructional Designer, The Game Agency

Imagine that it is your first day on the job as an airport security officer. A customer is yelling at you because you will not let her carry her antique Swiss Army Knife onto the plane. What do you do?

Scenarios like these grab attention and put the learner in the center of the action. When learners make decisions and experience the results of their choices, it evokes an emotional response that helps them remember what they learned.  At its root, a scenario is a story. In her 2021 Ted Talk, Karen Eber explains that good stories:

  • Maintain attention by building and releasing tension 
  • Communicate values
  • Engage emotions
  • Leave you changed 

Meaningful and relatable choices are key to a challenging and fun scenario, but it can be difficult to write plausible distractors (incorrect answers) that are not too obviously wrong. In a previous post, we highlighted some guidelines for writing distractors for multiple choice questions that work for scenarios, too. Here are some other guidelines to help you get started.

Choose your approach 

Scenarios can be straightforward or more complex depending on your performance goals and how forgiving you want to be for mistakes. There are two main types of scenarios:

  • Linear scenarios have one question path—all players answer the same series of questions, no matter what choices they make. Linear scenarios require fewer questions, graphics, and distractors, so they are easier to write and less time-consuming to build. 
  • Branching scenarios have more than one question path—players answer different questions or see different outcomes based on the choices they make. Branching scenarios are more complex to write and to build but offer a highly effective and re-playable learning experience if budget and time allow. 

The easiest way to get started is with a simple scenario. Identify 4-5 decision points, write feedback that loops players back to the main path, and use stock images instead of custom graphics or video. If you want to add complexity but do not want to build a full branching experience, you can add one or two remedial questions that eventually merge back into the main path. 

Start with a flowchart

Great stories often take on a life of their own, but changing one decision point or distractor (especially early in a scenario) can affect other decision points and lead to different performance outcomes. To avoid this disconnect, start with a flowchart. It does not need to be fancy—it is just an easier, more visual way to plot out the path and move decision points around. You may need to work closely with subject matter experts (SMEs) or stakeholders at this stage. Make sure you:

  • Focus on the learning objectives or performance outcomes you need to address. 
  • Identify the context, characters, key conflict/challenges, and outcome(s).
  • Show all the decision points and how they connect or redirect. If you are writing a branching scenario, show how many branches there will be and how many decision points each branch will include.  
  • Do not forget to include questions or narrative breaks that introduce and wrap up the story.  

Pace the challenge

Effective stories hold our attention by building and releasing tension. This is adjacent to the concept of flow—we are more likely to immerse ourselves in a learning experience when the challenge builds over time and there are breaks between difficult questions. Try to pace the scenario so that there are not too many difficult decisions in a row. Remember, the distractors impact the difficulty just as much, or more than, the question itself. When you write distractors, decide which choices really need to challenge and push the learner, and which choices can provide more of a bridge to the next question. 

Listen to subject matter experts 

If you have access to SMEs, set up an interview to discuss the questions, distractors, and feedback. Keep in mind that it can be difficult for SMEs to come up with ideas “on the fly.”  Whenever possible, read up on the subject ahead of time and write up suggested questions and distractors for them to revise. Your content does not need to be perfect—in fact, your misunderstandings are often a great starting point for conversations. You just want to provide a place for brainstorming to begin. Listen carefully and thoughtfully mine them for ideas. Their stories can become questions, distractors, and branches. The jargon and tone they use will lend authenticity to the distractors and feedback. Make sure you record the meeting so that you can go back later and refer to what they said.  

Pay attention to dialogue

Writing dialogue can be intimidating if you do not do it often. If you are writing a conversation scenario, it helps to be mindful of the entertainment you are already consuming. For example, pay closer attention to the book you are reading, the game you are playing, or The Office episode you are watching for the third time. Think about what works well and where the dialogue falls flat. In How to Write Dazzling Dialogue, James Scott Bell describes dialogue as action. It is not real-life speech, which tends to meander off topic. Instead, it is crisp, with tension and purpose. Bell recommends that you set each character’s agenda, then “set the agendas in conflict.” After you write the first draft, read it out loud and see how it sounds. Does it reflect the character? Is it naturally realistic? One thing to keep in mind:  Many corporate style guides “don’t” allow contractions, but that can result in very stilted speech. You may want to request some leeway when you are writing dialogue for scenarios. 

Write meaningful feedback 

During a scenario, the learner embodies a character presented with a series of choices. Every choice is a learning opportunity. Feedback for correct choices may be quick and light, but every wrong answer should have a consequence. In a linear scenario, this is usually a reaction or some other feedback response. In a branching scenario, you may provide feedback and lead the player down an alternate question path. In either case, consider each distractor (failure point) from the learner’s perspective, then provide a meaningful response and support to help them make a better choice next time.

Validate your work

Completed scenarios—especially branching scenarios—take more time to validate than other forms of eLearning. It is helpful to review them with a script. You can add comments or even “check off” questions and branches as you complete them. Whenever possible, ask colleagues to review the scenario and offer suggestions to make your questions, distractors, and feedback more relatable and realistic. 

After you launch the scenario, keep an eye on how players engage with it. If you build Scenarios with The Training Arcade® you can review detailed analytics to see which decision points have a high success rate and which ones present stumbling blocks. For example, you may find that some distractors do not provide the right level of challenge, or that some paths are never (or always) taken. The data can inform revisions, or provide insight that will help you write better scenarios in the future.

Scenarios are a great way to demonstrate real-life skills and consequences. Scenario writing is a creative process that often leads to new discoveries and valuable insights. To keep things manageable be sure to set the scope and plan the story arc ahead of time.  It is easier to write plausible distractors if you pace the challenge, listen to subject matter experts, pay attention to dialogue, and write meaningful feedback. Do not forget to validate your work and strive for continuous improvement. Ready to get started? Play this demo Scenarios game created for pharmaceutical reps and see what stories it inspires you to write!

Schedule a personal demo here to discuss how we can help you build games with The Training Arcade game-authoring software. It’s quick and easy but if you don’t have time, we get it, we can provide game-building services to get you started!

Resources: 

Eber, Karen. (2021). How your brain responds to stories — and why they’re crucial for leaders . [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/karen_eber_how_your_brain_responds_to_stories_and_why_they_re_crucial_for_leaders.

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