Narrative and World-Building

For this post, I will focus on two simple strategies you can use to improve motivation and engagement in your online course, narrative and world building. These terms are used frequently in games, as well as in literature, film and other domains. They are a powerful tool, easily applied to your existing course material or as you develop new content.puzzle world

If you want some background about where my thinking is coming from, check out my last blog post, Games as a Model for Motivation and Engagement, Part 1, where I take a deeper dive into gaming and Self-Determination Theory. I would also recommend a post by Dr. Meghan Naxer, Self-Determination Theory and Online Education: A Primer.

There are two kinds of world building I’d like to talk about; instructor-created narrative and student-created narrative. To set the tone for our thinking about this, I’ll start with a quote from Designing for Motivation.

“… if you increase autonomy then engagement will improve, if you increase competence then motivation will increase, and if you increase relatedness then wellbeing will be enhanced–these needs become the controllers we tweak and adjust to iterate on and improve experience.”
(Peters, D., Calvo, R. A., & Ryan, R. M. (2018) Designing for Motivation, Engagement and Wellbeing in Digital Experience. Frontiers in Psychology, 28 May 2018. DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00797)

So how can we use world building to ‘tweak’ these three controllers?

Instructor-Created Narrative

role-playing game diceInstructor-created narrative refers to the world or environment created by the course builder and determined by the story they are telling about that world. This world building can be for a particular course activity, but also keep in mind that your entire online course is a learning environment and you, as the course builder, have significant influence over how that world is curated. A colleague recently described how an instructor begins their course with the phrase, “Welcome scholars”. This sets a tone that is a competence-supportive environment with just two words. Tone is a commonly used tool for world building across many domains.

As a simple entry point for world building, I’ll start with a classic type of game, role-playing.

Brainstorm Exercise

Consider setting up a role-playing scenario for one of your existing activities or assignments. What is the outcome you expect students to achieve from this activity? Imagine a situation (or world) where that outcome exists or can be applied. What does that situation look like? Now, imagine you are a student in that situation, what does this world look like? (See what I did there? Role playing!) How will your student interact with that world to achieve your outcome? Take a minute or two to note your answers to these questions. This is a good way to begin sketching out your narrative. Once your sketch is complete, you can begin moving the parameters and rubrics of your existing activity into this world.

The world you create for your scenario can be the ‘real world’ in a particular time period, a hypothetical political situation, a business/client relationship regarding a product, or a hypothetical world to resolve a physics problem. Here are some ways you can frame your thinking as you practice the above exercise:

  • Take the tools you have provided in the course content (competence) and use them to analyze the following situation (world building). “How would you apply what you learned this week to the following situation?”
  • Even better, “How will the situation change as a result of your decisions?”

A small change in wording can provide big changes in thinking. In the second bullet point, we have moved from applying the week’s content to a given situation to a personalized critical analysis.

Student-Created Narrative

The other side of the coin is allowing students to build on your narrative, or create their own. This is where you significantly impact autonomy. This is your world, you create the rules. You set the parameters that will focus student thinking toward the outcomes you hope for them to reach. The rules you set will determine the level of autonomy the student experiences.

Brainstorm Exercise

For this exercise, you can continue with the role-playing scenario you built in the previous Brainstorm Exercise or choose another existing activity from a course. Let’s brainstorm some ways you can add autonomy to this activity.

A simple addition to the role-playing scenario we built previously would be to allow students to choose the role they will play. You have built a narrative, now let the student choose the character they will play to build on that narrative. If you need to keep things more focused, it is totally acceptable to restrict the roles to a list of options. Even with restrictions, is it possible for students to choose the gender, race or economic background of their character? What other characteristics can you think of that will help a student take ownership of the role?

For other kinds of activities, consider giving students the creative freedom to choose and build their own narrative. The instructor still defines the rules of the world and sets the outcome and rubrics for the activity. Can you open up the choices a student has to meet these outcomes? Allow students the autonomy to take ownership of how they get to your outcome, using your rubric as a guide.

For example, select a concept that was covered in the course. In your activity, allow students to choose where and how that concept can be applied. Let them build the narrative around the concept. Conversely, select a setting in the world, much like you would for the role-playing scenario. Allow students to choose the course concepts they want to apply in that setting and build a narrative around that. This strategy lends itself well to case studies. Rather than taking on a specific role, students become story creators, while still working with instructional concepts and within the rules defined by the instructor.

Group World Building

As I mentioned in my previous post, group work and community building (as modeled by gaming communities) are great ways to increase relatedness in a course. Community members are able to share their competence and, in turn, feel valued by that community. This is another great support of motivation.

All of the strategies discussed above can be applied to group work. You can set up the same role-playing scenarios, but this time multiple students will take on different roles and interact in those roles within their group community. Relatedness is impacted as decisions and actions taken by one student will affect the world that is being collaboratively built. Here are two examples from a media course I recently helped develop. They both reflect the range of complexity group world building can undertake.

Pitch Game (Group Discussion)

For your Initial Post in this discussion, pitch a new television show. Follow the parameters presented in class; including X+Y claims, audience description, sketch of the show’s audience and the ideal network for the show. For your Peer Response, you will take on the role of media buyer. Choose which network or streaming service you work for. Review all available show pitches. Decide which show you will purchase. Reply to the show you wish to purchase; identify the network you represent and write your reasoning why you want to make the purchase. Use course material to support your decision.

Trial Simulation (Group Project)

To better understand the ways in which civil law shapes the media ecosystem, we will enact a short trial simulation. The court of the Honorable Judge is an appeals court: this means that the FACTS of the case were decided by the TRIAL court. The question that will be litigated in class regards the law and the interpretation of those facts.

One student will take on the role of Plaintiff, another will be Defense and a third member of the group will be the Judge. Over the next two weeks, you will follow the posted schedule to present your arguments and answer questions from the Judge. Before proceeding, review the Debate Rules and Trial Facts documents. You will be expected to cite actual Supreme Courts cases to support your claims.

Hopefully, this blog has provided some simple entry points for using world building to increase autonomy, build competence, and improve relatedness in a course to improve motivation and engagement. I would love to hear what you come up with in the Brainstorm Exercises.

Dice Image: “DSCF5108” by joelogon is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
World Building Image: puzzle-ball-1728990_1920 from Pixabay

I am an avid gamer. For some time, I have been thinking about how engaging games are and whether this quality can be leveraged for other purposes; like instruction. Put more simply … What is it about games that makes them so engaging? Is there something about this that we can use as educators? Granted, these are not new questions.

Dr. Meghan Naxer recently posted a primer on Self-Determination Theory (SDT), Self-Determination Theory and Online Education: A Primer. I believe SDT does an excellent job describing much of what makes games so motivating and engaging. Indeed, games provide an excellent model of SDT and can inform us on how the three basic psychological needs (autonomy, competence and relatedness) might be met in learning environments. I hope to build on some of the concepts introduced in Meghan’s post.

This is the first in a series of posts on games as a model for SDT. In part 1, I look at the convergence of Autonomy, Competence and Relatedness in gaming and online learning in relation to building community and intrinsic motivation.

Autonomy: Open Worlds

Games are becoming increasingly complex, particularly in the arena of Open World games where players are allowed to choose their own paths (autonomy). Entire worlds, even universes, exist for you to immerse yourself in, each with their own history and internal logic. You are often thrown into a new world with few instructions.

For example, in the Open World game No Man’s Sky, millions of stars and planets are procedurally generated just for you, unique to your specific game. When this game begins, you appear on an alien planet next to a broken space ship. Your space suit is running out of oxygen. No instructions, just urgent messages from your onboard computer on toxicity and your decreasing oxygen levels.

The complexity of modern open world games is more than can be reasonably covered in a tutorial. Besides, a significant part of what makes the game engaging is the autonomous exploration and discovery. You decide how you will play the game, in what order you will do things and at what pace. Being told how to play the game is far less interesting.

Here is the internal logic of No Man’s Sky:

  • You’re in an alien environment.
  • It seems like you are alone.
  • There are problems to solve.
  • There is no instruction manual.
  • You must explore to solve these problems.

Think about that in comparison to your online students when they first enter your course. Online students do have instructions to help them get started. However, at first glance, it can seem like they are thrown in the deep end to figure things out for themselves. In a situation where intrinsic motivation is less clear, this can lead to frustration. That does not have to be the case. For gamers, there is one more bullet-point.

  • When you get stuck, you can turn to an online community.

If you were to talk to a gamer and describe your experience about how many times you ‘died’ trying to figure a game out, a common reaction would be something like, “Why would you do that? You know there’s a wiki, right?” Playing an online game today is not a solo venture, even if it is a solo game.

Relatedness: Gaming Communities

Online communities spring up around successful games to support players. A majority of large games have an accompanying Wiki, many of which are curated and updated by players. Various online communities exist to discuss specific games in forums and social media. Players discuss technical issues, the internal logic of a game, the lore and history of the game’s world, where to focus their efforts when starting, or the best order to do certain tasks for best success.

The point here is that given the resources, an intrinsically motivated group of people will figure out ways to help each other succeed. This speaks to Relatedness. In an environment where players are given maximum autonomy, they turn toward their community to support that autonomy and gain competence in that environment. Further, when given an opportunity to contribute to supportive communities, to share their competence, players feel valued as members of that community. So, can we create something like this environment in an online course?

Intrinsic Motivation: Sharing Competence

The challenge in my above summary is intrinsic motivation. There is something of an inherent motivation to play a game and get better at it. Though it can be less clear, online students also have intrinsic motivation beyond just ‘passing the course’. Community building can be a way to help students to discover and support these motivations.

Following the gaming example from above,

“Players discuss technical issues … where to focus their efforts when starting, or the best order to do certain tasks for best success.”

This is a good place to start building community. Simply encourage your students to share their success strategies in your course.

Formalize this by setting up a forum-style environment where students share their experiences, the process they used to solve a problem, the biggest stumbling block this week, or simply to ask each other for help. Much of this could also be accomplished through existing discussions or peer reviews by simply adjusting or adding language for students to draw from their own success strategies, “What did you discover this week that would benefit another student?”

Group work is another tool that can be used for helping students discover intrinsic motivation and build community. Challenge students to work together to apply this week’s content to something in their own lives, a subject of their choice. Trust them to find the problem that needs solving. This is similar to participation in a gaming community – sharing and building competence. But in this case, you are allowing students to build the narrative.

By giving students some autonomy in deciding the end product of their work, you are creating an opportunity for them to discover what drives them.

With all of these examples, it is perfectly reasonable to set the ‘internal logic’ of the environment; subject matter to be discussed, the completion goals, length of the project, rubrics for assessment purposes. The idea is to allow students more autonomy in determining how to get to these goals. All that you are really changing, compared to a typical assignment, is control of the narrative.

And that is a nice segue to the topic of my upcoming post, Part 2, Games as a Model for Motivation and Engagement – Narrative and World-Building

Dog running through water with a stick
Image by Wolfgang Horvath from Pixabay.

My interest in learning about motivation in education began many years ago when I started learning about motivation in game design. In a way, while this blog post will follow a different format, it is an outgrowth of my previous post on how game design can influence course design. In order to better understand motivation, in a classroom, while playing a game, and in an online learning environment, I am turning to the body of research that has grown from Edward Deci and Richard Ryan’s Self-Determination Theory (SDT).

What is Self-Determination Theory?

Deci and Ryan’s theory stems from the larger investigation of human needs for well-being. While physiological needs like food, water, and shelter may be obvious, what are our psychological needs? SDT posits that the three basic psychological needs of humans are autonomy, competence, and relatedness. “Like physical needs, these needs are said to be objective phenomena in that their deprivation or satisfaction has clear and measurable functional effects, effects that obtain regardless of one’s subjective goals or values” (Deci & Ryan, 2017, p. 10). In addition to the basic needs, each is also associated with a dichotomy of social environments.

  • Autonomy: “the need to self-regulate one’s experiences and actions” (Ryan & Deci, 2017, p. 10). A feeling of autonomy is not simply being able to make choices, but feeling that your actions and behaviors are in alignment with your own values. Being able to independently make your own choices is certainly one way to feel volitional engagement, but not the only way to fulfill the need of autonomy. Social environments vary between autonomy supportive and demanding/controlling. When was the last time you were able to engage with a situation or action wholeheartedly and felt fulfilled?
  • Competence: “[the] need to feel effectance and mastery” (Ryan & Deci, 2017, p. 11). This need is often paired with receiving positive feedback, seeking and overcoming challenges, and following curiosities. This need has received the most research in motivation and psychological studies, especially in education research. Social environments vary between effectance supporting and overly challenging, inconsistent, or being otherwise discouraging. When was the last time you sought a challenge and positively progressed (or achieved) mastery?
  • Relatedness: “[the need to] feel socially connected” (Ryan & Deci, 2017, p. 11). Feeling relatedness isn’t just about feeling cared for or taken care of, it is also about feeling valued in a community and having a sense of belonging. Social environments vary between relationally supportive and impersonal/rejecting. When was the last time you felt a sense of belonging and valued in a community?

These needs are essential for optimal motivation, well-being, and vitality (Ryan & Deci, 2017, p. 11). The research on how SDT promotes more intrinsic motivation is significant, as well as helps empirically establish different types of motivation (autonomy-control, intrinsic-extrinsic, and internally regulated-externally regulated) (Ryan & Deci, 2017, pp. 14–15).

Designing and Teaching with SDT in Mind

If we want our learning spaces (no matter the modality: face-to-face, hybrid, online, etc.) to promote optimal student (and teacher!) motivation and overall well-being, how can we design these spaces to fulfill these three needs?

  • Autonomy: allow students to make meaningful decisions about their learning, which may include students pursuing objectives in an order of their choice, providing students with additional relevant applications and rationales for activities and materials, providing students with opportunities to roleplay or act through a scenario.
  • Competence: balance the challenge/difficulty of a given task with student ability/skill, set clear goals, scaffold materials or activities, have a system for transparently communicating student progress, provide positive feedback.
  • Relatedness: foster an inclusive learning environment, instill a value of learning, design activities and interactions for peers to share and collaborate their knowledge and experience, provide instructor-to-student interaction.

“In fact, classroom climates supporting autonomy, providing high structure [competence support], and conveying relatedness and inclusion foster personal well-being and feelings of connection to one’s school and community” (Ryan & Deci, 2017, p. 18). Many of these goals may already be met in your courses. However, there are actions and elements of design that can negatively impact need satisfaction as well. For example, overly difficult challenges, overwhelming negative feedback, and social comparisons can inhibit a sense of competence. The role of assessments and grading will need to be covered in a follow-up blog post, as these can have both negative and positive impacts depending on how they are implemented and designed.

In summary, striving to create a learning environment that fulfills all three needs of SDT can be positive and rewarding for everyone in the class, including the instructor. While this is only a brief introduction to Self-Determination Theory as a whole, I hope it has inspired you to consider how your courses can be designed with SDT in mind.

References and Resources

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2000). The “what” and “why” of goal pursuits: Human needs and the self-determination of behavior. Psychological Inquiry 11(4), 227–268.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2017). Self-Determination Theory: Basic psychological needs in motivation, development, and wellness. New York: Guilford Press.

Ryan, R. M. & Deci, E. L. (2000). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations: Classic definitions and new directions. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 25, 54–67.

Self-Determination Theory. (2019).

  • This website is a treasure-trove of resources on SDT and its application in numerous fields, including education.