Indiana Jones. Princess Leia. Crash Bandicoot. Jack Baeur. Daenerys Targaryen.
Is this the guestlist for my ideal dinner party? Not quite. These are some examples of popular characters from film, TV and games. Throughout human history, we have consistently used characters to inspire, educate and entertain.
At Junction-18, we are big advocates of the use of characters within digital learning. Although this is far from a new concept, we still find some clients are hesitant or anxious about creating and using characters.
Whilst it might not fit for every subject, the benefits of using characters can be huge. Much to the delight of Brendan Rogers (tedious football joke here), below I will aim to “show great character” by outlining why I think characters can really elevate digital learning.
Because we’re all human
Contrary to common belief, we are in fact all human. And as humans, it is in our nature to emotionally connect with one another.
This of course applies to the characters in TV shows, books, films and games. Why should digital learning be any different? By creating a character that the user feels connected with (or more simply, cares about) you will automatically improve their attention and investment in the learning.
It makes the learning feel more personal
There is an argument that for learning (particular digital learning) to be successful, it must contain elements of personalization, i.e they user must feel that the learning is applicable to them and has been designed as such.
By having your character(s) interact directly with the learner, through prompts or instructions, the learner will feel as if they are engaged in a dialogue as they navigate through the learning. Prompts can vary in complexity, from simple instructions to extensive branched scenarios.
There is also research to suggest that users prefer to be able to chose from characters or interact with multiple characters, as opposed to dealing with one single character (remember the Microsoft paperclip?). So using multiple characters or providing an option to do so is generally preferable to the user.
We enjoy narrative
It’s safe to say we all enjoy a good story. We respond well to structure and providing this to the learner allows them to feel a sense of progression as they go through the learner.
We can develop this further by allowing the learner to control the narrative of the character, i.e they make decisions which affect the learning and the eventual outcome.
Characters boost memory and retention
Research by Stanford University suggests that the use of characters favours our emotional intelligence and therefore increases user retention of learning content.
Now, I would say that this should not necessarily be treated as gospel, as we must remember different people have different learning styles. However, from experience interventions where characters have been used tend to be a) better received b) have improved feedback/metrics and c) prompt a more positive response from the user.
A little comment on style. When designing a character and the environment for the learning, we tend to look at either a realistic or stylised approach. Now it’s not to say you can’t combine the two (realistic character/stylised environment or stylised character/realistic environment) however we must always consider the idea of the “uncanny valley”.
Uncanny Valley, to quote Wikipedia, “The uncanny valley is a hypothesis in the field of aesthetics which holds that when features look and move almost, but not exactly, like natural beings, it causes a response of revulsion among some observers”.
If that’s a bit of a mouthful for you, then this video explains it rather nicely.
The style of character you chose for your project is also likely to be influenced by a number of factors, including:
- Your audience: what are they likely to respond well to?
- The topic: is it something more ‘serious’ or is there room for a more playful/humorous approach?
- Budget: are we going with more static, traditional characters or are we remaking Frozen?
- Timescale: the more elaborate the character, the longer the development, so are you working to a deadline?
- Purpose: what's your characters role and how does this fit into the learning?
If you’ve read this far, thanks so much for taking the time to do so. I’d love to hear your success stories (or even your challenges) of where you’ve used characters in digital learning.
If you’ve got a digital learning project or idea involving characters you’d like some support or opinion on, feel free to get in touch or reach me firstname.lastname@example.org