Interactive Storytelling for Education: “The Evolution of Trust”

Interactive storytelling can be a powerful medium in the realm of educational games. How do you pack a great deal of conceptual knowledge in an e-learning experience – while also keeping learners engaged and giving them increased opportunities to learn from their experiences with your instructional content? Amidst a crowd of PowerPoints, lectures, videos, quizzes, MOOCs, and other e-learning media, I believe game designer Nicky Case has found/created a happy medium in “explorable explanations.”

Game: “The Evolution of Trust”

A piece of design that touches my heart as a fledgling educational experience designer is Case’s “The Evolution of Trust” (2017). (Try out this browser-based experience on your device before reading on!) “The Evolution of Trust” is an interactive guide to the game theory of trust based off Robert Axelrod’s 1984 book, The Evolution of Cooperation. After taking two advanced game theory courses in my undergraduate economics program, I really appreciated the playful yet educational experience Case created here.

In “The Evolution of Trust,” Case boils down game theory – what economics professors often present as an esoteric subject – to several core ideas and makes them readily consumable for the mass public through playful drawings and meaningful interactions (e.g. animation, scoreboards, and narration which correspond to the learner’s chosen actions) that allow for “learning by doing.”

In the education literature, “The Evolution of Trust” can be described as supporting generative processing: “cognitive processing aimed at deeper understanding of the core material (consisting mainly of organizing and integrating) and is created by the motivation of the learner to make sense of the material and can be supported by instructional methods that promote engagement with the material” (Clark & Mayer, 2016).

“The Evolution of Trust” is a great example of interactive storytelling for educational purposes, and this post is dedicated to exploring this example.

Game designer: Nicky Case

Nicky Case is the designer and creator of this interactive experience. Case was born in Singapore and moved to Vancouver with his family as a child. He came out as bisexual at 16 years old to his “manipulative, abusive, and violent parents” (Eyeo Festival 2015 talk) and was essentially disowned shortly after. Case later went on to create the game, “Coming Out Simulator” (2014), as a result of this experience.

After Case moved out of his family home at sixteen and started interning at a video game startup, one of his fellow game developers had a mid-life crisis in the middle of a project deadline and asked Case: “Is what we’re doing important?” In his 2015 Eyeo Festival talk, Case responded to his coworker by sharing his perspective that video games are art, and art can really affect people. Case’s most recent art, which includes “The Evolution of Trust,” focuses on helping people understand and learn, and the following quote of his aptly describes his design philosophy:

“Because when people don’t understand something, it leads to hate, helplessness, or worst of all, apathy. With interactive art, and learning by doing… maybe we can get people to understand the world, each other, and themselves.”

Design leading up to “The Evolution of Trust”

How did “The Evolution of Trust” come into being? It all started when Case published his first interactive explainer, “Coming Out Simulator,” and became internet-famous almost overnight.

He was then invited to an interactive education workshop – where he met fellow educational experience designer Vi Hart. They collaborated and created the explorable explanation (see Bret Victor’s 2011 essay that coined the phrase “explorable explanation” in reference list), “Parable of the Polygons” which illustrates how individual biases can turn into more systemic, collective biases.

Eventually, Case gave up on his big indie game project that he had been planning and working on for years after choosing to further explore this side project idea of explorable explanations (Nicky Case, Explorable Explanations – XOXO Festival 2015) and interactive explainers. Case is now inviting designers and developers across the world to join in and make their own explorable explanations. He and his collaborators developed the Explorable Explanations website to share explorables that “reunite play and learning” and also provide resources for visitors to make their own explorable explanations.

Design of “The Evolution of Trust”

Case’s “How I Make Explorable Explanations” blog post describes the process of how he designs explorable explanations that help people learn by playing:

You’ve got to make your reader / viewer / player curious – you’ve got to make them love your question… In ‘The Evolution of Trust,’ I posed the question in the form of a story: why & how did WWI soldiers create peace in the trenches?”

True to his word, Case starts the “The Evolution of Trust” by presenting the WWI Christmas story to explore the “epidemic of distrust” many of us perceive:

During World War I, peace broke out.

It was Christmas 1914 on the Western Front.
Despite strict orders not to chillax with the enemy, British
and German soldiers left their trenches, crossed No Man’s Land,
and gathered to bury their dead, exchange gifts, and play games.

Meanwhile: it’s 2017, the West has been at peace for decades, and
wow, we suck at trust. Surveys show that, over the past forty years, fewer and fewer people say they trust each other. So here’s our puzzle:

Why, even in peacetime, do friends become enemies?
And why, even in wartime, do enemies become friends?

I think game theory can help explain our epidemic of distrust –
and how we can fix it! So, to understand all this…

…let’s play a game. →


The audience of “The Evolution of Trust” is anyone with access to the internet, since the experience is designed to run on any web browser. Accessibility seems to be at the forefront of this project, given the universal web app design, Creative Commons Zero license, and open-source nature of the base code.

Case makes public domain playables, and this is another public domain dedication. The license for this project is Creative Commons Zero, which Case describes as: “Basically, do whatever you want! Attribution is super appreciated, but I’m not gonna send legal goons after you or anything.”

This explorable explanation was originally created in English, but open-source (via GitHub pull requests) fan translations are encouraged, tested, and linked to the game’s homepage. The following languages are currently supported: Japanese, Chinese (Simplified), Chinese (Traditional), Brazilian Portuguese, French, Spain Spanish, Latin American Spanish, Russian, German, Italian, Turkish, Polish, Vietnamese, Greek, Persian/Farsi, Hungarian, Catalan, Arabic, Bulgarian, Korean, Romanian, Ukrainian, Croatian, and Swedish.


“The Evolution of Trust” is an example of interactive storytelling. When Case creates interactive stories, he wants the interaction to really matter. He also gives the learner a concrete experience to certain their gameplay around: in this case, playing a Prisoners’ Dilemma type game against a variety of virtual opponents:


Following along this line of storytelling, Case describes his thought process when designing the story framework for “The Evolution of Trust”:

“Matt Stone & Trey Parker once said that instead of making stories like this: ‘this happens, and then that happens, and then that happens, etc’… you should make stories like this: ‘this happens, THEREFORE that happens, BUT that happens, THEREFORE this happens, etc’.

I tried to connect as many points as I could with BUT: ‘You can both win if you both cooperate BUT in a single game you’ll both cheat BUT in a repeated game cooperation can succeed BUT in this scenario cheaters take over in the short term BUT in the long term the cooperators succeed again BUT…’ and so on, and so on.”

Although this simplified story structure looks confusing in run-on sentence form, this logical continuity of ideas that continue to reinforce and build upon each other lends itself well to an educational context.

Design details and effectiveness

At a superficial level, the calming instrumental background music and sound effects (which are all Creative Commons-licensed) for interactive activities are well-suited to learning and focusing a learner’s attention to the interactivity at hand in “The Evolution of Trust.” The cute drawings, colors, tournament web diagrams, buttons, and sliders also act as visual guides to understanding and interacting with the interactive experience. 

Even the first section which introduces the game of trust serves as an intuitive pseudo-tutorial to explain the general premise of the game and get players familiar with the mechanics and score tracking.

For example, in the next section titled, “2. Repeated Game,” we learn there is a different strategy for a repeated game playing over multiple rounds (where players do not know which round will be the last) from the strategy for a one-time game or known set of rounds. In the following section (“3. One Tournament”), we learn about how the original Christmas Truce example was a repeated game since “players” played the same game against the same specific people while clicking through individual tournament round results:


Here, the game introduces the concept of multiple tournaments using both text and visuals, and then provides an animated example, which learners can either see animated or click step-by-step through (by clicking on the “step” button):


Additionally, support is built into the design for learners to use (or not use), such as the hover-over descriptions for the character choices below:


After establishing the case for reciprocating behavior, the game draws our attention back to the original question posed at the beginning:



“The Evolution of Trust” then has learners tinker with the underlying logic behind the game theory concepts of a “zero-sum game” and “non-zero-sum game” before introducing this terminology to learners:


I particularly appreciated Sandbox Mode, since you can easily test theories you might have, even as a user with limited technical/coding abilities, by clicking arrows or moving sliders to adjust values. You can just as easily skip this optional section.


The summary that recaps the high-level lessons of the explorable explanation is also quite helpful, since the interactive experience covered several different topics and variations on this topic (e.g. single game, repeated game, one tournament, repeated tournaments, mistakes). It is nice to have this scaffolded guidance for final reflection, synthesis, and a call to action. The last “slide” representing the Christmas Truce mentioned in the beginning of “The Evolution of Trust” also does a great job of completing the circle of the story and providing closure to the experience.


Room for improvement

Although it is nice that a learner can navigate by section across the explorable explanation (e.g. “2. Repeated Game,” “3. One Tournament,” “4. Repeated Tournament,” “5. The Evolution of Distrust”) via the bottom menu, I think it would also be helpful to be able to go back and revisit the last screen the learner has seen. This way, the learner can revisit specific information or a specific activity more readily. I found myself skimming and clicking the “next” button too quickly and wanting to go back to the previous screen several times. While repeating a short section may not seem too bad, being forced to repeat extra material is associated with feeling a lack of agency and control – which does not align with the nature of this voluntary learning experience.


I believe “The Evolution of Trust” accomplished its overall design purpose of teaching basic game theory concepts to literate internet users with no prior knowledge of game theory – through the medium of interactive storytelling. Through worked examples, guided discovery, practice, and open exploration (Sandbox Mode), many learning opportunities were provided to learners during the explorable explanation. Significantly, the call-to-action at the end of the experience gives learners a sense of agency to create an environment more conducive to trust (rather than distrust) and closes out the experience leaving learners feeling smarter and more in control of their social environment.




Case, N. (2017, July 25). The Evolution of Trust. Retrieved from

Case, N. (n.d.). NOTES. Retrieved from

Case, N. (2017, September 20). How I Make Explorable Explanations. Retrieved from

Case, N. (2017). Ncase/trust. Retrieved from

Case, N. (2014). Coming Out Simulator 2014 by Nicky Case! Retrieved from

Clark, R. C., & Mayer, R. E. (2016). E-learning and the science of instruction (4th ed.) Wiley.

Explorable Explanations. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Eyeo 2015 – Nicky Case. (2015, August 6). Retrieved from

Hart, V., & Case, N. (2014). A playable post on the shape of society. Retrieved from

Nicky Case, Explorable Explanations – XOXO Festival (2015). (2015, November 05). Retrieved from

Victor, B. (2011, March 10). Explorable Explanations. Retrieved from

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