The importance of characters in games

Social learning theory focuses on the importance of observation and modelling as a key part in the learning process alongside classical and operant conditioning.

Social learning was illustrated by one of my favourite experiments by Banduras Bobo Doll experiment in 1961. Modelling is taking on board the behaviours which we observe from people around us. In society, we are surrounded by role models, who illustrate both positive and negative behaviours. For children this modelling is an essential part of their development, helping to mould them into the person they are to become. It is also important for adults as well. We see it all the time in the world of fashion, make-up and celebrity, but also in the world of business. Many people model the behaviour of Richard Branson for example, hoping to emulate his success to one degree or another.

Social learning experienced a big boom several years ago on the back of the success of platforms such as Facebook and Twitter – social learning became a buzz word, but it has had a stuttering start due to a ‘build it and they will come’ mentality. So many social platforms just never reached the tipping point required to make them worthwhile from a user’s perspective.

However social learning means more than just an online community where people talk about work and learning and can ‘like’ or ‘vote up’ comments. ‘Social’ as an interaction mechanism actually feeds into the reward loop for our behaviours and our brains love it. Our brains are social by nature, society has enabled humans to dominate the planet and by adding a social element to learning, we can magnify the effects of behaviour change.

Matt Lieberman, a prominent psychologist, found that we assess new information on how important it is to others who are important to us (such as our family or our team) and not just ourselves. This process enhances the opportunity for making new neurological connections in our brains – more connections mean a stronger memory. The area of the brain that is activated in social contexts (the medial prefrontal cortex) is not normally associated with forming new memories in relation to technical skills but if you combine a social element you create the opportunity to create stronger connections between concepts and ideas than without the social element.

We can’t always learn in a social setting with real people, but with games we don’t need to. We know that players form strong connection with game characters, especially when those characters are part of the core storyline. We really care about what happens to them. We empathise, we buy into their goals, and we find information to help them and to enrich their lives. They become part of our lives. In many of the serious games I have worked on the characters have been a central component and it has always been important for me that these characters feel real – not a 2D impression of a boss, colleague or customer, but a genuine and emotionally believable persona, modelled on real world experience.  If you can create a believable character, and they come to mean something to you, when you are in a learning experience the same reward loops and circuits in the brain will be triggered, and new information will be assessed in terms of these characters – our social tribe – and we will think through the impact of this information on these virtual colleagues.

This has the potential to create stronger richer connections and make learning more effective. So next time you are working on a serious game or learning programme, think about the social element, and think about how believable and realistic your characters are. It really will make a difference!