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Ideas Instructional Design

Gamification Inspiration: Life is Strange, Part One

Cutting-edge games can influence unique eLearning.

We believe any learning endeavor can be gamified. Should it be? That’s another story. But it is becoming more and more common for even consumer games to mine previously un-mined themes, settings, and content. More sophisticated audiences demand games that constantly innovate, providing new experiences. The line between art and game is being blurred, and many would (in this author’s opinion, rightfully) argue that games are simply another artistic medium.

As this trend continues, the eLearning industry stands to benefit by keeping track of innovation in gaming and letting that inspire us in applying gamification concepts to eLearning courses. So, keeping that in mind, let’s take a look at Dontnod Entertainment’s Life is Strange.


One of the most lauded games of 2015, Life is Strange was released for PC and the big consoles. It has been described as an episodic graphic adventure. However, putting this game in a category poses some challenges. It defies categorization in some ways, or at very least, throws your expectations out the window. It plays more like an interactive movie than a game, and its dark subject matter is uncommon material for a video game.

Games don’t have to be what we have come to expect, and this game proves that over and over again. I recently played through the first two episodes (there are five total). This will not be a review of the game (others have done that more eloquently), but rather a jumping off point for discussing some of the game’s unique features and how those features could impact decisions about how to develop your online learning.


Life is Strange follows the life of Maxine Caulfield, a teenager attending an arts academy. Her specific interest is photography, but her life is, well…strange. During the course of the game, she has to navigate her friendships, drug dealers, online bullying, murder, cliques, time travel, cute skater boys, depression, getting her homework done, and, of course, a tornado. Seriously.

However, the game finds itself most at home in the quiet, normal moments that seem very human, relatable, and even sad or tragic. A lot of these topics are not traditionally approached in games, but that is part of what makes it so compelling. A truly new experience that is compelling. It serves to remind us that we can adapt anything into a game. If you believe your subject matter doesn’t fit within the context of the game, I’d challenge you to think about how you define the word game to begin with.


Made popular by Braid, time control has become a rather standard video game mechanic. This is the first time I’ve ever seen it used to predominantly impact personal human relationships (rather than jumping through platformer hazards). Instead of using a time-reversal mechanic to change what you tell the school principal after a gun incident in the bathroom, we could use a similar mechanic to change the outcome of a sales call. We could even make a time change decision point that impacts a series of calls and meetings throughout the rest of the course.

Instead of the normal “select a choice and get feedback” paradigm, how can we change the paradigm of how the learner receives feedback? Maybe they don’t receive feedback directly, but have to watch events play out to see if they succeed or fail, and then back up to the point where they believe they made a mistake. With strong, subtle writing these choices do not need to be so obvious as to be insulting to the learner. This forces the learner to engage in a new way and develop strong critical thinking skills. Maybe not all of your training should function like this, but perhaps part of it? Perhaps a challenging assessment?

…how can we change the paradigm of how the learner receives feedback?


The critics seem to have different feelings about the slang and language used being phony or not, but I can only speak for myself to say that generally I found the characters well written and relatable (mostly). There is obviously a lot happening in a game this ambitious, so I can forgive it a few occasional cheesy moments.

Often when developing corporate training, marketing language and jargon take precedence over realistic, natural dialogue that resonates with the intended audience. Sometimes, this happens to try to push an initiative or desired way of thinking, but other times, it’s just an unfortunate, unnecessary default. We tend to sanitize the language to the point that it fails to speak to its audience. What if your learners heard people speaking the way they do every day about things that matter to them, but then the scenarios illustrate the learning points? It’s the classic theater trope: “Show, don’t tell.” The phoniness of marketing language and jargon in eLearning courses immediately pulls people out of the experience and turns. them. OFF.


Life is Strange was initially released in episodes. This is another gaming trend that it uses to great effect. While not entirely unprecedented, this game chooses to tell Maxine’s story day by day with each episode representing a single day. The minutiae that you are able to explore in Max’s day helps make the world feel real and tangible. The world is colored in with stunning, charming, and completely superfluous details. It also makes your goals—that as a teenager figuring out normal life plus time-changing powers—seem less daunting. In fact, you can focus on your immediate tasks while still considering how they affect the overall progression of the story.

And while it’s also not a new concept to eLearning, we certainly should reflect long and hard about how we break up seat time for our learners. Does an extremely complex simulation need to be a long, 4-hour experience, or can we do a better job of breaking it down and making it palatable? All learning can start to feel overwhelming if we don’t formulate curricula that acknowledge the need to appropriately break down the content in a way that the audience can realistically consume it. Why not find a fun way to do it that eschews the classic “module” label? Days, tasks, colors, and whatever else you might think of may be a way to divide your content.


After completing the full, five-episode story, I’m planning to write Part Two of this discussion. In Part Two, I’m planning to delve into concepts including: consequences of choices made, transitions and integrated soundtracks, and whatever else I may discover along the way.

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