Why tension in learning can be magic

Will the kids in the kitchen evade Jurassic Park’s velociraptors?
How is Joe Pesci going to react to being called a funny guy?
And what really is in that box Brad Pitt just picked up?

A cliffhanger is irresistible. There’s suspense, drama - and tension.

In the entertainment world, this tension is key: in movies, TV, theatre, sports - and magic.

To quote Alfred Borden, the lead character in Christopher Nolan’s magnificent magic mystery The Prestige:

Christian Bale as Alfred Borden

“Now you’re looking for the secret.
But you won’t find it because of course, you’re not really looking.
You don’t really want to work it out.
You want to be fooled.”

Cliffhangers - and more specifically the tension created - are the moment where there are more questions than answers. When we sit on the edge of shifting from one feeling to another. When we don’t quite know what will happen next.

When a story doesn’t land or leaves us cold, there’s a good chance tension is missing. We float through as disinterested passengers, addled by ambivalence and amnesia. And before long, we’re gone.

Learning is no different. Effective learning always creates tension. There are moments when you become aware of a cliffhanger - that there’s something you don’t know. These moments happen just before you learn something - just before the tension is released.

If the tension is too strong we may find ourselves in a taut psychological thriller, or having to press the escape button as the discomfort becomes too much.

But when we play with it - dial it up or down, or shift it from one place to another - extraordinary things can happen.

In Action: Building tabletop learning games

To illustrate the tension involved in creating tension, as I write this we’re finalizing of one of our projects with mission-driven restaurant company DIG. This one reimagines a lecture-based onboarding session for new hires as a box-set of tabletop and digital games (that we like to refer to as the ‘Kitchen Arcade’).

After our first play-test and pilot sessions, one of the games - an Escape Room-style puzzle on dealing with allergens - needed a rebuild. At first we shared the topic upfront, then the game and the goal. It worked functionally, but felt a little flat. There wasn’t enough tension - we’d laid the whole thing out too smoothly.

Next, we put the tension point in much later - but almost too late. The upfront work had too steep an incline to make the cliffhanger worth the long climb.

On the third iteration, we shared a general overview of the game early on, but hid the actual topic deeper inside the scenario we’d designed.

Two tension points appeared:
1. At the start (there was just enough info on the game, but not too much context)
2. Midway through, when we revealed the topic and the specific learning goal (along with a mission to get there)

the Escape Room setup

This second tension point was the kicker: we could sense people sitting on the edge of realizing there was suddenly something they didn’t know - and that they were just about to learn it.

With other games in the box, we mixed up the tension points: some you came into almost blind - you don’t know really why you’re doing this (yet); with others we opted to share stories and materials on a smoother incline to avoid participant fatigue (remember - there’s such a thing as too much many cliffhangers)

In the example of the Escape Game, the design shift didn’t happen for us until our third iteration - albeit on a tight and rapid feedback loop.

Next time, we see there’s opportunity to play test the individual elements in different ways and try out different formats and arcs - more deliberately setting up the tension earlier or later in the experience.

Creating tension - and conjuring magic

We can create tension in many ways - here are just four of them:
- character conflicts
- game mechanics
- raising stakes and urgency
- injecting opposing goals

The work isn’t just in creating tension though - it’s in sequencing it and knowing how far to turn the dials. Get it wrong and we lose people. But when we strike the right balance, they're able to go somewhere they weren’t at all expecting. Magic can happen.

Speaking of magic, I’m writing this a few hours before seeing the magician Asi Wind live in NYC. It’s a close-up show using only one deck of cards. And every audience member’s mere presence adjusts the story of the show - and its final outcome.

Talk about tension.

Things we’re thinking about…

- How do you incorporate this into learning hard skills and not make the tension overwhelming?

- In a world of fluid, changing skills how do you name the thing when you don’t know exactly what it’s called? For example, Excel conditional formatting is a clear and discrete skill, but ‘business communication’ is not. Does the former not offer enough tension, and the latter too much?

- Can you apply a recipe or formula for adding tension across different topics and formats, or does it need to be hand-crafted each time?

(main image: Joan Marcus)

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