Activity-Based Scenario Theory: aligning narrative, gameplay and learning elements within video game design

This is a draft paper that I wrote on activity-based scenario theory while liaising with Tim Marsh an Assistant Professor at the University of Singapore. The theory provides a framework for aligning narrative and learning through game design.


Serious games have established their place as a tool to enhance and facilitate learning environments. However, a distinct lack of formal tools, methods, techniques and approaches has hindered the design of digital learning-based games. There is strong evidence to suggest that integrating a narrative within a learning-based game can increase motivation and provide a rich learning environment. However there are even fewer tools available to assist in this design process. The difficulty appears to be in aligning three very different elements with seemingly opposing objectives: gameplay mechanics, learning objectives and narrative. Activity-Based Scenario theory with a focus on actions, activities and objectives could provide a framework for successfully integrating all three elements creating a game that is immersive and fun to play while still imparting intended learning objectives.

 Serious games with serious objectives

The popularity of video games has increased dramatically over the last decade. Not only has the percentage of children playing digital games increased by more than 50 percent, the amount of time they spend playing those games has almost doubled (Park, 2011).

Hardcore gamers have fueled an industry that is estimated to be worth US$74 billion in hardware and software (Shah, 2011)

In recent years, the appeal of video games has spread to mainstream audiences as demonstrated by the rapid rise of casual gaming on mobile communication platforms including phones and tablet computers with games such as Angry Birds (2009). Social networking sites have attracted players from around the globe including the Facebook-based FarmVille (2009) with around 80 million players (Walker, 2011).

Video games have become a new medium for communication, expression and learning but they have a particularly hallowed place among the current generation. “Video games are more important to them than film, than broadcast television, than journalism. This is their medium. Games are this generation’s rock and roll” (Park, 2011).

In an attempt to tap into this popularity as well as the opportunities digital-based media affords, there has been a corresponding avalanche in the development of learning-based games, also known as serious games. The definition of serious games can be described as games that are “designed with a purpose beyond that of recreation or entertainment and encompass games designed to educate, train, incite activism, inform, persuade, express, recruit or indoctrinate” (Bergeron; Michael& Chen; as cited by Dickey, 2011).

The efficacy of digital learning-based games is already widely established (Eck, 2006). Studies have shown that games can facilitate important skill development including strategic thinking, planning, communication, application of numbers, negotiating skills, group decision-making and data-handling (Barab et al, 2010; Dodlinger, 2007; Fisch, 2005; Kirriemuir and McFarlane, 2004; Charsky, 2010). Serious games create an environment where failure is tolerated and risk taking is encouraged, providing the player with a greater degree of freedom to learn from their own experiences through trial and error.

Games can also take advantage of the engaging and motivational aspects of video games while incorporating them with educational components. However, moderating fun with learning is a difficult balancing act. Popular online games such as World of Warcraft (2004) the massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) can guide players in mining gold, vanquishing enemies or honing their leadership skills (Reeves et al, 2008) but it was not the intention of the game designers to explicitly teach these skills. These skills may be learned but they are only incidental to the overall goals and objectives inherent within the game.

Edutainment software, games that are designed explicitly to teach specific learning objectives, attempt to make learning more palatable by utilising game characteristics to motivate the learner to complete activities through reward by entertainment. Although this approach may have value in some types of learning, for example rote memorization, it does not promote an opportunity for higher order learning or understanding”. This is a fundamental flaw of edutainment, limiting gameplay to mere ‘repetitive drill and kill learning’ or ‘drill and practice’ (Dodlinger, 207; Squire, 2003; Van Eck, 2006). There is typically “little or no attempt at trying to teach gamers how to apply their knowledge, analyze their understanding, synthesize their perceptions, or evaluate their learning” (Charsky, 2010). The focus becomes a disjointed exercise in explicitly transplanting the learning objective into a game that directly exercises that skill in the most basic sense. Thus edutainment titles often fall prey to what was coined by Professor Seymour Papert as “Shavian reversals”, games that may have been “educationally sound as learning tools but were dismally stunted as games” (Eck, 2006).

Serious games can rise above the central weakness of edutainment by not only providing short-term motivation to complete the game but also through the creation of a rich environmental context which facilitates higher order learning. This could stimulate situated cognition where learning takes place within a meaningful context, so that what is learned is directly related to the environment in which it was learned and demonstrated. Thus, the learning is not only relevant but also applied and practiced within that context (Eck, 2006). As Barab et al (2010) note games can provide a framing that “legitimizes the participation of players by establishing a value system for both the context and the players’ actions that honors their agency and the need for mastering content”. In order to achieve higher learning goals, the game environment should be considered as learning tool in itself a potentially rich source of context, meaning and engagement. One way to create this type of environment is through the inclusion of narrative.

The role of narrative

Narrative is a fundamental way in which people are able to process the world around them, adapting and accommodating new information to an existing understanding of the world or schema. A narrative can be thought of as “signs, or of a medium, that evokes in the mind of the recipient the image of a concrete world that evolves in time, partly because of random happenings, and partly because of the intentional actions of individuated intelligent agents” (Ryan, 2007). There are several different modes of narrative that are employed to relate a story to the audience: digetic, mimetic, simulative and mimetic (Ryan, 2007). The digetic mode is telling somebody that an event has happened, usually in the past as demonstrated by most novels. Films are an example of the mimetic narrative mode, where the story is enacted in the present by impersonating a character and mimicking action. The simulative mode creates a story in real-time by designing or using an engine that will implement a sequence of events on the basis of its internal riles and input to the system, while participatory narrative involves creating a story in real-time by playing a role in the story world and selecting one’s behaviour. Video games a combination of the simulative and participatory mode.

Digital-based games have the potential to create powerful narratives, even when limited information is provided. Dickey’s study Murder on Grimm Island (2011) noted that when players were provided with only parts of a story they found it natural to construct complete narratives explaining the motivations of unseen non-playing characters (NPCs), demonstrating the strength of player desire to create a narrative even where none existed and how even simple narrative elements could be used to evoke players’ existing narrative schemas. This concept has been noted as hyperdiegesis. The creation of a “vast and detailed narrative space, only a fraction of which is ever directly seen or encountered within the text, but which nonetheless appears to operate according to principles of internal logic and extension… by presenting a well-defined, intricate, and coherent space, audiences are left to imagine a larger world and deeper mythology” (Brand and Knight, 2005). Like other artistic disciplines such as novels and film, video games can create a powerful narrative through the use of aesthetic tools such as cutscenes, flash forwarding, pacing, lighting, music and sound effects. However, the construction of a narrative through traditional storytelling tools such as plot, characterisation and dialogue is more difficult and less utilis ed within current video games.

The power of narrative is utilised in video games primarily for its ability to create a level of deep immersion for players. Immersion is a key goal for developers of AAA video game titles, and the games industry has acknowledged the importance of narrative as demonstrated by the level of investment game studios are making to ensure that games feature strong narratives. Acclaimed writer Alex Garland, author of The Beach and several successful screenplays, was recruited to write the game story for Enslaved: Odyssey to the West (2010) a platforming action-adventure game. The game received high critical acclaim from game review magazines including the following from XBOX 360 (Hoggins, 2010):

“You’ll find Enslaved to be an enthralling, unique and complete tale. There aren’t many games that cater for character development but, perhaps because of the constantly impressive fidelity of the performances, there’s a genuine sense of relationship progression… We love good, old-fashioned storytelling in a video games, and that’s exactly what Enslaved: Odyssey to the West offers over the course of its eight-to-ten hour arc. The combination of a compelling plot, plausible characters and a stunning world to explore means that, while rather brief, this is one of the more memorable experiences on the Xbox 360 this year.”

However, a strong narrative alone is not sufficient to guarantee a unique immersive experience. The recently released L.A. Noire (2011) is an adventure/open world sand box game where the player has the freedom to explore the world within the game. The game has been lauded for its complex storylines, character development, facial animation technology and attention to the visual aesthetics of 1940’s America. However, the game has also received criticism for limited player autonomy due to the amount and length of cut-scenes likening the game to more of an interactive movie than a video game. This suggests that the expectation of an immersive experience in gaming is very different from film, primarily the difference between acting as a spectator versus participant. As J.C. Herz notes “the games that wind up having a real impact always have incredibly well designed rule structures, and the game play itself has well-thought-out interactions” (cited by Prensky, 2001).

The role of narrative in serious games is even more complex. Firstly, few serious games evoke a narrative to facilitate the learning of specific objectives. Those that do usually employ a very limited narrative scope that may include a back story and characters who fulfil the role of storyteller, providing the learner with relevant and timely information. Most serious games that utilise narrative aim to increase motivation in a ’carrot and stick’ approach, encouraging the player to progress through various tasks, rewarding them with puzzles or more ‘story’ until the game is completed. However, few games harness the power of narrative to create an environment that would allow learners to “construct an understanding of argumentation/persuasion based on first-person non-symbolic experiences as opposed to ‘third-person symbolic experiences’” (Winn, 1993 cited by Dickey, 2011). Where in the world is Carmen Sandiego? (1985), a game designed to teach students geography appears to be an exception to this finding, as one of the few successful edutainment titles. However, its success in engaging students as well as imparting learning objectives is largely due to the successful alignment of learning objectives with a relevant narrative and context. Charsky (2010) explains that “exogenous and endogenous fantasy, fidelity, and context are important elements in serious games because they can disguise underlying algorithms in instructionally sound and engaging means, convey authenticity, and assist learners in recognising the relevance and complexity of content while facilitating their ability to transfer and generalise their understanding to the real world.” Thus the players’ actions and objectives are an important part of the story, framed within a context that is still relevant post-game.

Narrative should not be used as a tool merely to distract players from the task of learning or encourage them to complete the task. Narrative offers an opportunity to create a rich multi-layered context for implicit learning; however, taking advantage of this opportunity is easier said than done, when there is currently a distinct lack of design tools for serious games.

Design tools specifically for serious games

Although there is a wide range of literature supporting the efficacy of digital learning-based games there are few approaches that provide concrete tools, techniques or guidelines to facilitate the design, development and implementation of serious games (Chen and Michael, 2005; Gunter at al, 2004; Marsh, 2010; Van Eck, 2006). Learning-based games are usually commissioned and developed for a specific set of learning objectives without an attempt to test or support existing theories that may contribute to the systematic development and assessment of serious games. The absence of common tools and approaches for the design of serious games hinders the ability of individuals from disparate sectors to collaborate effectively.

There are even fewer design tools to assist in the integration of narrative or story development in digital learning-based games, despite the potential advantages discussed previously. Players often describe their favourite games as those that are enjoyable and immersive, where the player loses track of time and space while fully engaged with gameplay. This state has been likened to a state called flow, a constant cycle of cognitive disequilibrium and resolution which may facilitate learning due to assimilation and accommodation of new information to existing schemas (Van Eck, 2006). Thus, a well-integrated narrative may increase the likelihood that players will enter a state that is conducive to learning. However, it is more than simply a lost opportunity to create an immersive environment. Narrative could provide a central overarching context or framework that could itself facilitate learning.

Besides place, time and objective based rules, Brand and Knight (2005) proposed that the “grand ambition of the player,” that is, the thematic and content-driven potential of a strategic objective, may reveal an “important and often overlooked link between ludological and narratological form”. Gameplay and story can be aligned if the actions the player must perform resonate with the overall objective of the game. However, this alignment cannot be forced together retrospectively, if the gameplay has already been designed or if the narrative has been set in stone. However, the story in most digital-based learning games appears to be merely “a structure imposed on top of, and different from, game play” (Lindley, 2003). To be most effective, story and gameplay must be designed congruently or else the player will suffer from cognitive dissonance stemming from jarring competing objectives.

If narrative techniques are applied at the right level and aligned seamlessly with appropriate gameplay mechanics, it is more likely that the player will find themselves within a deeper level of immersion. However, there may also be an opportunity to integrate a third dimension, learning objectives, utilising a framework that focuses on the interplay between actions, activities and objectives.

Activity-Based Scenario Design

Narrative has been successfully introduced to human-computer interactions (HCI) through the use of scenarios or scenario-based design method. “Scenarios are stories: they are realized through text descriptions and supporting artwork… they illustrate a game’s scenes, settings, circumstances and situations, as well as the possible future sequence or choice of events that make-up a game’s narrative flow” (Marsh, 2010). An obvious example of the use scenarios is in film and theatre in the creation of storyboards to represent action. However, due to their flexible nature it is necessary to capture scenarios within a framework that will facilitate design within serious games.

Leontiv’s hierarchical framework of activity is an approach that provides a systematic way to design serious games. The framework is composed of three elements of activity: activity, actions and operations that are characterized respectively by objective, goals and conditions respectively (Leontiv, 1981). The strength of this approach lies in the fact the hierarchy is similar to that already found in games. Activity, actions and operations are easily transferred to the functions that players must perform in order to play and complete a game successfully. Activities become quests, actions become missions and operations are required gameplay mechanics at the operational level. Activity-theory enhances the learning between individual actions because they are all part of the same activity. Learning one skill can facilitate and enhance the learning of another. In addition, the ABS framework is a dynamic structure that can shift between each element depending on the situation and circumstances indicated by the scenario (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Hierarchical Framework of Activity Applied to Games: (a) activity; (b) action; (c) operation; (d) shift in focus of attention from actions to operations; (e) shift in focus of attention from operations to actions; (f) transformation from action to activity; (g) shift in focus of attention from gaming to real world; (h) boundary for gaming context of use.
Figure 1. Leontiv’s Hierarchical Framework of Activity Applied to Games: (a) activity; (b) action; (c) operation; (d) shift in focus of attention from actions to operations; (e) shift in focus of attention from operations to actions; (f) transformation from action to activity; (g) shift in focus of attention from gaming to real world; (h) boundary for gaming context of use.

Activity is directed towards achieving an objective (a). The objective is a process that characterises the activity as a whole and is made up of one or a combination of actions/tasks. Thus, objectives coincide with motive. The Action level (b) is the heart of the scenario, using text and graphics to describe the game environment, game mechanics and what players do. Actions may be made up of sub-actions that are directed towards sub-goals. Sub-actions themselves can be made up of sub-sub-actions and so forth. It is important to note that Actions are processes carried out with conscious thought and effort, planned and directed towards achieving a specific goal. This is in contrast to Operations (c) that are performed with little conscious thought or effort in the use of physical interactive and virtual in-game artifacts triggered by conditions of actions.

ABS theory provides a framework that allows designers to plan and align narrative with game play. This hierarchal framework is “arguably the most practical and operationalized theory in terms of the support for design and development of scenarios in serious games, and because it incorporates a multi-level structure providing multiple units of analysis (variable lens) that can be extended to analysis of learning” and noted as a “powerful and clarifying descriptive tool” (Nardi, 1996). This tool can also be used to align implicit learning objectives with gameplay and narrative. This potential can be explored using an existing narrative, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, to design a hypothetical learning game to teach high-level mathematics.

Narrative and learning in “Alice in Wonderland”

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is a popular children’s novel written by Charles Lutwidge Dodgson under the pseudonym of Lewis Carroll (2010). Written in 1865 the story unfolds when a young girl follows a rabbit down a hole entering a fantasy world populated with strange creatures and characters. Although the story is well known most readers are unaware that Dodgson was a tutor in mathematics at Christ Church University, Oxford. Moreover, there are examples of Carroll exploring mathematical concepts throughout the story, although never officially acknowledged by Dodgson himself (Bayley, 2009; 2010). These concepts, which are already embedded within the narrative of Alice in Wonderland, could be exploited to design a game that introduces students to high-level mathematical concepts.

Alice in Wonderland figurine with the White Rabbit. Photo credit: Russ Sanderlin.
Alice in Wonderland figurine with the White Rabbit. Photo credit: Russ Sanderlin via Flickr.

In Chapter 1, Down the Rabbit-Hole, Alice drinks the bottle labeled “drink me” and begins to shrink rapidly. She ponders how fast she is shrinking and what final size she will become, thinking that “it might end, you know, in my going out altogether, like a candle”. Here is it claimed that Alice is exploring the concept of a limit.

In Chapter 7, A Mad Tea-Party, Alice attends a party with the March Hare, the Hatter, and the Dormouse. There are several examples in which the semantic value of a sentence “A” is not the same value of the converse of “A”, demonstrated by the following dialogue.

March Hare:    Then you should say what you mean.

Alice:                    I do. At least – at least I mean what I say – that’s the same thing, you know.

Hatter:                Not the same thing a bit! You might as well say that “I see what I eat” is the same thing as “I eat what I see”!

March Hare:    You might just as well say that “I like what I get” is the same thing as “I get what I like!”

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is an example of evoked narrative and drawing upon its familiar storyline, these embedded high-order mathematical concepts could form the basis for puzzles or operations in a game where “learning the rules results in learning the content” (Charsky, 2010). Using ABS theory, we can try to align elements of gameplay, narrative and learning objectives within a common framework as represented in Figure 2.

Figure 2. A game design framework based on Activity-Based Theory: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
Figure 2. A game design framework based on Activity-Based Theory: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

The high level Activity involves Alice finding a way home while navigating the strange and unfamiliar characters and landscape of Wonderland. The Actions that must be performed include drinking the potion that shrinks Alice, eating the cake that causes Alice to grow, swimming through the pool of tears, interacting with non-playing characters and so on. Although the story is linear and playing the game would not change the outcome of the story, the focus is on the player’s Actions and the learning opportunity that they provide.

Although Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland may provide an opportunity to leverage an existing narrative with embedded learning concepts into a learning-based game, one weakness is that the chapters and sequence of events in the storyline are disconnected. What Alice learns in one situation is not necessarily transferrable or useful in another. Thus the story does not utilize one of the primary strengths of the ABS framework: to create a context that facilitates learning at all levels. What is required then, is a narrative that supports the dynamic interaction between Activity, Actions and Operations as the story develops and the player learns more skills.


Waker is a puzzle-platform game designed by the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Games Lab to explore basic physics concepts (Marsh et al, 2011). The game features a sleeping child who cannot wake because her dream is broken. The player acts as the Waker, whose can mend the broken dream by creating platforms, known as ‘wisps’, through the manipulation of special orbs. The storyline is expressed through cutscenes at the beginning, middle and end of the game.

Figure 3. Screenshot of Waker, a puzzle-platform serious game created by Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Games Lab.
Figure 3. Screenshot of Waker, a puzzle-platform serious game created by Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Games Lab.

Player feedback to the game was very positive: Waker was voted as Indie Game of the Week by online review site, Bytejacker, and nominated as a finalist in the non-professional category of Indie Game Challenge 2010. Players described the game play as “thought-provoking, stimulating and creating a pleasant level of frustration”, however they did not identify Waker as a learning game.

To enhance explicit learning, the game was modified to include an extended storyline and narration by two off-screen non-playing characters (NPC). The aim was to provide encouragement, guidance, strengthen social dimensions, introduce terms relevant to learning objectives and encourage reflection. Results indicated that not only was learning enhanced as a result of these modifications but gameplay experience was also improved. Players found the modified Waker game less frustrating and less distracting then their counterparts who had played the original game. In an attempt to explain why these modifications may have been so effective in improving gameplay experience as well as enhancing learning, the ABS framework may provide insight. The gameplay mechanics of Waker have been included within the ABS framework as illustrated in Figure 4.

Figure 4. Activity-Based Scenario Framework, as applied to the serious game Waker.
Figure 4. Activity-Based Scenario Framework, as applied to the serious game Waker.

The overall Activity of the game is to repair a broken dream so that the sleeping child can find her way out of the dream. In order to achieve this, the player must mend the dream by building pathways (wisps) using several types of “orbs”. At the operational/gameplay level these orbs are manipulated using keys on a keyboard. However, shaping the pathways’ direction and slope by moving the orb across the screen at various speeds requires an understanding of each orb’s function, which is dependent on the concepts of displacement and velocity.

Events in the game trigger dialogue from an NPC, who explains how to manipulate the orbs to build the required wisps that will mend the broken dream. For example, in level 5, the NPC advises, “I think this new orb is affected by velocity” then later “You may need to sprint to increase your velocity”. The NPC uses correct physics terminology, such as displacement and velocity, to ensure that the terms are relevant both in-game and to any learning instruction that may take place after the game is completed. Thus the game has been designed to align gameplay mechanics with learning objectives.

Game balancing is also aligned with learning objectives in the Waker game. The displacement orb is introduced at level 1. Once the player has mastered their skill in using the orb the second orb is introduced at level 3. In later levels, several different orbs must be used in order to complete the necessary pathways.



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