Can opening cinematics enhance learning?

Article, Research Update, Shan Lakhmani 1 Comment

Shan Lakhmani | January 5, 2012

Like many others, I remember, years ago, watching the opening cinematic for Final Fantasy VII for the very first time and knowing that we had entered a brand new age. Since then, video games have been using more and more elaborate opening cinematics to entice people to play the game and to quickly establish a narrative. The only problem is that these things are expensive as all get out to make. If you are making a triple “A” game, then the expense can be justified as marketing. I’m not ashamed to say that I have bought games just because the trailer was pretty. But, serious games tend to have a captive audience. You don’t have to convince students to play a learning game if their schools mandate it! So, in the interest of saving money and getting the most out of every game feature, we here at RETRO explored just how an opening cinematic can help users get the most out of the game.

One of the major purposes of an opening cinematic is to establish a context. One study found that establishing a supplementary, stressful context before playing a game actually improved players’ performance on performance tasks in that game1. After examining the learning and motivation literature, we decided that there are three cognitive factors that can yield this improvement: context2, stress3, and motivation4. Essentially, people learn better in a relevant context, do better when in a stressful situation when they are accustomed to performing in stressful situations, and do better when they want to master a task rather than just look good doing it.

Watch the opening cinematic for the Damage Control Trainer

So, that’s what we tested. We had students play the Damage Control Trainer, a 3D first-person game designed to teach recruits to navigate the inside of a battleship, and we changed the opening cinematic to stress either wanting to learn the material or wanting to score well. Unfortunately, players reported similar levels of motivation, regardless of opening cinematic seen. So, we expanded the study. Players either watched an opening cinematic or they didn’t, and we checked if they differed in terms of motivation, levels of stress, or perceived contextual relevance.

They didn’t.

So, to be sure, we went further. The previously mentioned study used movie clips to stress out players, rather than a cinematic, so we decided to do that too. Players watched one of four short movie clips that was either relevant or irrelevant and either stressful, or stress-free. Regardless of movie clip watched, players performed similarly and learned roughly the same amount. Furthermore, the players’ perception of the game’s relevance, a subcomponent of context, increased after playing the game, regardless of the clip they watched. So, we conclude that it isn’t the opening cinematic which affected players’ sense of context, and subsequently their performance, but rather the game itself.

While the use of situated cognition, arousal, and goal orientation have all been used successfully in training, incorporating these factors into an opening cinematic does not improve learning in a serious game. So, if you’re making a serious game, don’t break the bank making an opening cinematic. Those resources can be better used to improve game usability and in-game features that provide contextually-relevant stress. Or, you can buy your dev team lunch. Either way, you’re getting a better game in the end!


1. This finding is reported in the following study: Morris, Hancock, & Shirkey’s (2004) “Motivational effects of adding context relevant stress in PC-based game training.”

2. Context, used in this instance, refers to situated cognition; this principle states that one learns moreeffectively when in a context that is relevant to the material being learned. If a game tries to teach a behavior by setting the game in an environment where that behavior occurs (learning about physics on a space station, for example), then that game is using an endogenous framework. Read more about situated cognition in Van Eck’s (2006) “Digital game based learning: It’s not just the digital natives who are restless” and Susi, Johannesson, and Backlund’s (2007) “Serious Games: An Overview”. Read more about the benefits of using endogenous frameworks in learning games in Rieber’s (1996) “Seriously considering play: Designing interactive learning environments on the blending of microworlds, simulations, and games,” and Kenny & Gunter’s (2007) “Endogenous fantasy-based serious games: Intrinsic motivation and learning.”

3. We focus on a key component of stress, arousal. Intensity of arousal has been shown to be a factor in motivation for learning behavior. Read more about this relationship in Garris, Ahlers, & Driskell’s (2002) “Games, motivation, and learning: A research and practice model.”

4. Motivation can be described in a number of ways. We use the Goal Orientation paradigm. Here, motivation is comprised of two components: Orientation and Valence. Orientation describes motivation in terms of mastery of the material and performance of learning activity. Valence is described as the desire to approach the positive or avoid the negative. More information on Goal orientation is available in Elliot & McGregor’s (2001) “A 2×2 achievement goal framework.”

Images and video provided by Julian Orrego.


One Response to “Can opening cinematics enhance learning?”

  1. Katelyn Procci says:

    Programmers love free pizza. No lie.

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