The 2012 indie game Journey has stayed with me like a vivid, pleasant dream. While other video game experiences might have offered more intense gameplay, more expansive environments, and more complex mechanics, few approach the lasting totality of the Journey’s emotional impression. Years after my first time playing it, I remember not merely what what I saw and did, but also how it felt. So, what is it about Journey that makes it so compelling—and how can these lessons be applied to e-learning?
The setting of a fantasy world is often its most compelling element, and Journey is no exception. However, there is no opening “crawl” detailing the story so far, no dramatically narrated cinematic introduction, and no talkative companion gabbing exposition. It just … starts.
You are a robed, monk-like figure standing in a desert. Ruined stone structures stand in the sand-swept valley below, and a distant mountain peak gleams with magical energy in the distance.
What more do you need to know? At no point did I concern myself about who the player character was supposed to be, what the ruins once had been, or why the mountain was glowing. Providing me with this information from the outset would not have enriched the experience. You begin the game unburdened by the weight of unneeded context, and this allows you to clearly focus on the task at hand.
Great e-learning immediately engages learners, putting them in the middle of the action without the encumbrance of lengthy introductions or boring tutorials. Learn by doing—not by being told what you will be doing.
Journey is unusual as it’s a platformer/puzzle game that is death-free. That doesn’t mean that you can’t make mistakes. It just means that at no point is your cute little monk avatar crushed at the bottom of a canyon or smooshed by a rock-monster, sending you backwards to try again or ending gameplay altogether.
For example, once I slipped off the edge of a tower, and rather than losing a “life” or having to restart at another save-point, I instead landed on a giant imperial-red flying carpet that was folded into the semblance of a whale. I sat on its back as it lazily drifted back to the point where I had fallen, and then I hopped off to try again.
I made a mistake, but I didn’t feel punished by it. Trying to do new things in Journey isn’t something you approach with trepidation. Because of this, you feel free to explore and try anything.
E-learning should provide a safe place to make mistakes and see their effects. The goal of teaching is to instill an understanding of why the right things work, not to punish learners for taking incorrect actions. When feedback is corrective but not punitive, learners are more likely to internalize it and stay engaged.
PLAYING IS ITS OWN REWARD
How do you motivate a player? A game can offer countless rewards: points, power-ups, feature unlocks, and—of course—badges. What’s notable about Journey is that it has none of these. There is no “grind” of completing a repetitive task to earn enough points to move on to another repetitive task. There is no “Hopped 50 Magic Carpets” badge, no special unlockable monk robe, no badass power-ups, no extra lives. So why keep playing?
Journey instills a continuous sense of progress in players. There is always a way forward. The initial curiosity created by that immediate immersion, along with the seamless exploration encouraged by its death-free environment, keeps you playing for the best reason: you want to.
If learners are only taking e-learning to fulfill a requirement or to get a little icon by their usernames upon completion, it’s not doing what it's supposed to. Engagement comes from the thing itself—learners should connect with an e-learning course, not do it for little star icons or printed certificates.
I could go on about Journey—its simple but potent design, its point-of-need instruction, its fun and undemanding social aspects—but it’s something best experienced first hand. Give it a try, or revisit it again if it’s been a while. For gamers of any level and e-learning professionals of all types, Journey is well worth the trip.