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Serious games for serious topics

By Clark Quinn, Lisa Neal / March 2008

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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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    Clark Quinn
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