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Serious games for serious topics

By Clark Quinn, Lisa Neal / March 2008

TYPE: OPINION
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Everyone wants to increase engagement and retention for learners, especially if the topic is an important one where compliance or business success is at stake. In addition to their underlying theoretical rationale, games have been shown—in practice and under a variety of circumstances—to be successful in terms of both engagement and retention. However, are games appropriate for all topics, in particular, serious ones? Can the design of a game, or even the fact that a game is being used, induce a sense of frivolity that lessens the impact of the learning?

"Serious games" is a term that has evolved to describe the use of games in education, training, health, and public policy. Serious games do more than add window-dressing or fun to an otherwise serious (and potentially dull) learning task. They recast a learning task into one that is game-like and fundamentally alters the experience of the learner.

The process of developing serious games properly starts with the learning objectives. Those objectives are turned into critical decisions to achieve a meaningful goal, which is set in a context or "world" where the application of those skills really affects an outcome that the learner cares about, with an underlying model that calculates the consequences of those decisions in the world and presents the learner with new choices until success (or failure) is achieved. Finally, we must tune that experience—adjusting challenge, feedback, support, and media elements—until it is engaging when tested.

With such an approach, the necessary skill practice is contextualized or situated, making the learner responsible for exploration. This provides a constructivist approach to learning that includes just enough guidance to optimize the process. This does not wrap entertainment around learning, but recasts the learning practice as an immersive experience. The results can be described as "hard fun" in the sense that they don't feel easy yet provide a compelling experience. When a serious game is done effectively, it engages the learner's emotions and brain in a coherent experience that leaves them with new attitudes, understandings, and/or skills.

Note that learning games are not total learning experiences. While it is possible to embed concepts, examples, and even reflection into the learning environment, games do not encompass all facets of learning. Instead, the game itself serves as practice in the overall learning experience, and other and resources outside the game experience are needed. For example, reflection on the experience should be scaffolded outside the interaction to facilitate deeper learning.

Properly done, serious games are highly effective for serious topics. While the notion of a game may seem frivolous, the design and content are not. In fact, a serious game can introduce tension and crises to simulate the realistic experience of practicing a particular skill, or depict consequences, more easily than other types of learning. In the game Darfur Is Dying, for example, the difficulties of daily life such as trying to secure water while avoiding the Janjaweed militias is challenging and nerve-wracking, bringing home the simple challenges of survival for the people caught in this disaster and raising awareness of the importance of a solution.

Pine and Gilmore, in their book The Experience Economy, talk about the step beyond the experience economy being the transformation economy, where people pay to have experiences that are transformational. That's what we're talking about here. Serious games challenge the learner and keep him or her engaged during the learning process. It's the difference between watching a nature documentary and going backpacking in the wilderness.

Deeply immersive learning experiences increase engagement, and results can be determined by learning metrics such as retention and transfer. Next to mentored real performance, serious games are arguably the best way to master a skill—serious or otherwise. However, any skill that is necessary for someone to learn can be deemed "serious," whether it's customer service, operating machinery, or detecting fraud. Essentially all are critical in their own way to an organization's success. A serious game will not seem frivolous when done right. Whether you call it immersive learning simulations or serious games, it constitutes deeply contextualized, challenging practice. And that's a worthy goal.



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ADDITIONAL READING

    Clark Quinn
  1. Getting Smart About Content
  2. Managing in Complexity: A book review of Flat Army
  3. Getting Going with mLearning: A recap of mLearnCon 2014
  4. Working Smarter in Terra Nova Circa 2015
  5. Book Review: 'Learning Through Practice: Models, Traditions, Orientations, and Approaches' edited by Stephen Billett
  6. Book Review: 'The Connected Company' by Dave Gray
  7. Book Review: 'Learning in the Cloud' by Mark Warschauer
  8. Writing (And Reading) Conference Session Descriptions
  9. The Case Against Pre-Testing For Online Courses
  10. Getting Serious about eLearning
  11. Better Assessment
  12. Debunking The Myth of the Average Learner: A review of The End of Average
  13. The New Organizational Learning: A Review of Teaming
  14. Better Design Doesn't Take Longer!
  15. Seven steps to better e-learning
  16. Publish or Perish
  17. Getting Engagement Right
  18. Lisa Neal
  19. Predictions For 2003
  20. "Spot Learning"
  21. Q&A with Saul Carliner
  22. When will e-learning reach a tipping point?
  23. Online learning and fun
  24. In search of simplicity
  25. eLearning and fun
  26. Everything in moderation
  27. The basics of e-learning
  28. Is it live or is it Memorex?
  29. The Value of Voice
  30. Predictions for 2006
  31. Five Questions...for Christopher Dede
  32. Five Questions... for John Seely Brown
  33. Five questions...for Shigeru Miyagawi
  34. "Deep" thoughts
  35. 5 questions... for Richard E. Mayer
  36. Designing usable, self-paced e-learning courses
  37. Want better courses?
  38. Just "DO IT"
  39. Five questions...
  40. Formative evaluation
  41. Senior service
  42. Blogging to learn and learning to blog
  43. My life as a Wikipedian
  44. Five questions...for Elliott Masie
  45. The stripper and the bogus online degree
  46. Five questions...for Lynn Johnston
  47. Five questions...for Tom Carey
  48. Not all the world's a stage
  49. Five questions...for Karl M. Kapp
  50. Five questions...for Larry Prusack
  51. Five questions...for Seb Schmoller
  52. Do distance and location matter in e-learning?
  53. Why do our K-12 schools remain technology-free?
  54. Music lessons
  55. Learn to apologize for fun and profit
  56. Five questions…for Matt DuPlessie
  57. Back to the future
  58. Five (or six) questions...for Irene McAra-McWilliam
  59. Learner on the Orient Express
  60. Of web hits and Britney Spears
  61. Advertising or education?
  62. How to get students to show up and learn
  63. Q&A
  64. Blended conferences
  65. Predictions for 2002
  66. Learning from e-learning
  67. Storytelling at a distance
  68. Q&A with Don Norman
  69. Talk to me
  70. Q&A with Diana Laurillard
  71. Do it yourself
  72. Degrees by mail
  73. Predictions for 2004