eLearning Branching Scenarios can Learn from Choose Your Own Adventure Stories

male traveler swimming underwater with shark
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I was lucky enough to grow up during the 1980s heyday of Choose Your Own Adventure stories, a low-tech precursor to the electronic branching scenarios that are now common in modern eLearning, as well as the interactive fiction craze made possible by branching text editor Twine in the Internet era. In these stories, you read until you reach a decision point, at which time you decide to flip to one page for one choice, a different page for a different choice. To a digital native it might feel a little awkward, but for an era before we knew what hyperlinks were, we were accustomed to skipping around in books and newspapers to get the whole story.

I like looking at the old-school analogues to a the conventional learning types that have become the norm in eLearning, like comparing interactive eLearning modules to popular video games. Scenario-based learning and branching scenarios are so commonplace now, that it’s easy to get too used to seeing workplace scenario design that we forget other viable approaches to the same type of work.

For designers seeking to boost engagement, we should aim to match the user experience of entertainment-oriented media, as it often demonstrates good practice in terms of immersive, inclusive, and engaging design compared to the more “eat your vegetables” tone we often see in educational media. These stories need to be genuinely engaging to a general audience (read: wide range of ages and abilities) to be successful, so they use simple, exciting language, dramatic visuals, and detailed scenarios to keep the excitement high.

I decided to check back into this genre to rediscover the joy of flipping back and forth through possible outcomes, evading disaster, and considering the consequences of my actions. To my 8-year-old self, being put in the story’s central role as the driver of the action was naturally immersive and engaging.

My local library didn’t have many of the 1980s titles I read as a kid, but instead they more recent CYOA books whose content was based on the Worst Case Scenario survival handbooks popular in recent year, though dramatized in language and scenarios for elementary school-aged kids. The first one I read, Deadly Seas, tells the story of the first ‘round-the-world sailing expedition crewed entirely by a quirky team of teenagers.

The story elements serve to steer the reader into realistic survival situations one might encounter on a boat, like what to do if you fall overboard, veer off course, or get attacked by a shark. The reader’s choices have definite right and wrong answers based on plausible misconceptions people might have, and readers get to see clearly the consequences of the choices they make. Choose the right answer, and you continue on the adventure. Choose wrong, and you read (and see illustrations of) the negative consequences of that choice.

Lessons Learned from CYOA Books

I researched a bit about the history of the “Choose Your Own Adventure” books, which I learned is not just a genre but a specific trademark for books written by Edward Packard and his business associates.

They originally thought readers would only follow one path, but the format compelled readers to explore all possible options. In the first book….

The warning at the beginning of the book tells you, “Remember—you cannot go back!” But of course you can go back, and you will. After the first few books, the warnings stop saying “You cannot go back!” They understand that going back is the point—not the making but the re-making of choices, the revocability of it all. In childhood, you get to take things back. It’s a small compensation for having very little power in the first place.

2022, NewYorker

going back is the point—not the making but the re-making of choices.

As we can see, there is an intrinsic form of motivation that is created when we truly feel a sense of autonomy and ownership of the learning experience. Rather than being passively moved along a one-size-fits-all conveyor belt experience, these books simulate the feeling of directing the action, and that power can be an intoxicating motivator for readers/learners.

Pay More Attention to Wrong Answers

Most of the eLearning scenarios I’ve seen pay too little attention to wrong answers, quickly trying to steer the learner back towards the right answer so they can keep going. This results in a feeling of low-stakes choices that don’t matter and lack interest for learners.

I’ve seen from the inside of eLearning development projects how subject matter experts want so badly to emphasize the correct answers out of a desire to communicate the “real” information that they tend to spend less time and effort developing convincing distractor choices. I as the ID on a job often have to “punch up” those incorrect answer choices (or write them entirely myself) to give the course the appropriate rigor, which is challenging because I lack the deep experience with the content that SMEs bring.

These books take the wrong turns seriously. They spend the time and effort to help you see and feel what a wrong answer means, and they are that much more compelling for doing so.

They are able to convey vividly in just a paragraph or two what happens after you make the wrong choice. The reader gets to sit for a while with the feeling of failure, to see for themselves what gets broken or lost when a careless choice is made, long enough to motivate them intrinsically to retrace their steps and discover the correct solution. Often these failure conditions are paired with simple but compelling imagery that emphasizes the high stakes of a wrong choice.

Photo of a "wrong choice" page, with text telling the story of a crewmate falling overboard and drowning because the reader chose wrong. There is an illustration of a hand reaching up out of the water.
You chose wrong and somebody died. Now aren’t you motivated to go back a few pages to save them?

Immediate, Engaging Language

The content of these books lends itself to dramatic, action-oriented prose. The original 1980s books mimicked pulpy “dime store” adventure novels of the generation before, transporting the reader into exotic locations and situations that thrill imaginative young minds.

Originally created for 7- to 14-year-olds, the books are written in the second person. The protagonist—that is, the reader—takes on a role relevant to the adventure, such as a private investigator, mountain climber, race car driver, doctor, or spy. Certain books in the series allow readers choice of whom to take the role of, for example, in an adventure book, readers may be prompted to choose between a climber, a hiker, or a traveler.


They demonstrate my idea You Should use the Word “You” in Instructional Materials that a 2nd person (“you“) voice in stories adds an engaging edge to storytelling that the passive voice, or even 1st and 3rd person voice can’t match. It heightens that feeling that you, the learner, are driving the experience, and raises the high stakes feeling of the choices you make.

Empower the Learner to Look Things Up when they Need to

The first thing you, the adventurer, are asked to do is to read the ship’s “Expedition File”, which can be thought of as a “textbook” for dealing with the common perils one might face on this adventure. In an eLearning module, it could be a dense content reading or a video presentation you want the learner to consume in order to master new information. The reader is encouraged to read it before the ship sets sail, but can always flip to the back to brush up on relevant information at the moment they’re facing a high-stakes choice and realize they don’t know how to proceed.

This is the exact opposite of force-feeding your learner information according to a linear sequence predetermined by the eLearning designer – AKA every compliance training I’ve ever had to click through. My study of performance-based assessment led me to believe that compelling eLearning should be a series of tests, not a series of “tells”, challenges that confront the learner with the fact that…

  • there’s something they need to know.
  • they don’t know it yet.
  • they know how and where to get the answer they need.

These CYOA books do that well, immersing the reader in a high-stakes story, and subtly reminding them that they have been given all the information they need to solve the problem, if only they’ll take the time to read/watch it. It reminds me of one of my all-time favorite self-paced online learning models, the WebQuest.

Below is a link to a previous post where I describe WebQuests and what’s so great about the pedagogy in them:

WebQuests were an online learning modality from the early days of the web, popular in the late ’90s/ early 2000s with K-12 teachers. It’s a shame they’re not more popular today, because the pedagogy built into the model is exemplary. Much like “Deadly Seas”, they featured a compelling story designed to motivate young learners to collect key facts around a learning topic. The story functions to create intrinsic motivation in learners to consume didactic learning content (like read a paragraph or watch a video) in order to have enough information to solve the central conflict of the story. WebQuests were built with rudimentary 1990s/early 2000s web development tools so they lacked the sophisticated branching technology we’re talking about here. (Heck, even including images and sound files into them was kludgy then, a fact that I think made them age badly as an internet asset and fade into obsolescence as an instructional practice before their time).

Nerdy digressions aside, situating the content you want to teach within a compelling story about the real-world stakes of getting that information right vs. wrong is a powerful tool for making your eLearning scenarios more compelling.

Invest in Characters

One thing I notice the Deadly Seas book doing is taking the time and effort to flesh out a small ensemble cast of characters, and not being shy to give those characters memorable quirks that interact meaningfully with the storyline.

Illustrations from the book "Deadly Seas" featuring character personas, with faces and descriptions of their quirky personalities. Their characteristics become relevant to the story.

It’s rare to see this kind of individual character development in workplace eLearning, maybe because story development overall is treated as a garnish alongside the instructional learning content to be taught, rather than being seen as the main course.

The Eternal Balance: Learning and Fun

This brings up genuine question of how far we want to tip the scales from “the story serving the teaching” to “the story balanced in equal measure with the teaching”. Investing in this level of stagecraft and dramatization is an additional development effort on top of the already-tight deadlines we face, and can be distracting and boring at worst if not created with skill and flair.

Our team’s learner demographic consists of busy salespeople for whom every minute spent training is a minute they can’t be working to meet their own business goals, so we strive to deliver maximum value for every minute of attention they give us. At best, though, memorable characters, scenery, and scenarios can boost retention and give added contextual cues to help simulate real-world conditions that would help learners make context-bound decisions in their actual work.

These are the types of learning outcomes VR helmet vendors love to promise, and this is a way to deliver a similar experience by activating the learner’s own brainmatter rather than shelling out for an expensive and unsustainable tech platform.

The question, in both cases, is whether the time it takes for learners to go along through the story is rewarded with achievement of the desired learning outcomes that make that time worthwhile. This is where the modern LMS and assessment standards like SCORM and XAPI can align the choices a learner has to make with a stream of data output that documents their understanding of the content to be taught.

The branching functionality we design into these learning experiences should not punish the learner for venturing down incorrect choice paths, but should rather encourage them to make mistakes, learn from those mistakes, and continuously move forward. The experience of making those wrong mistakes is a valuable learning event in itself — showing the learner clearly what would happen if they made the wrong (but attractive) choice.

This means for designers that we may want to build assessments that measure success of the learning outcomes independently of the choices they have to make to navigate the story. This way, the data generated from these “for credit” assessments is not crossed with the more meandering paths they may need to tread to gain that understanding.

More to Come

This was just a first foray into revisiting these CYOA stories, but it’s all in preparation of me starting to generate some original work in this area. I’m excited to use Twine to start mapping out some interactive stories that could be delivered in our Evolve Authoring platform as a multimedia mixture of text, images, video, and interactive elements. Of course, these tools are dependent on a compelling story to make the whole experience worthwhile, and for that, CYOA novels are a great example to emulate for a variety of reasons.

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Written by

Ted Curran is a Learning Experience Designer/Developer for Autodesk. He is committed to empowering educators and learners to create transformational change through effective pedagogy and technology integration. You can follow Ted on Mastodon, LinkedIn or learn more at my 'About" page. These thoughts are my own.

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