‘Serious’ games are a genre of educational games that focus on creating unique learning contexts for difficult subjects. In this article I will explore the premise for serious games as tools for learning, and highlight some of the most exciting projects out there.

What is Learning?

It is obvious that we expect the outcome of our education and training efforts to result in more skilled or capable people, a process we tend to describe as ‘learning’. Yet in practice, learning means quite different things to different people. For instance, does what many educators regard as learning, the memorization of information, really constitute learning if the learner does not have the ability to apply that information correctly given a range of contexts? Have they learned if they can produce a fact, but cannot accurately cross-reference that piece of information with something previously ‘learned?

A learner who can recite every bone in the human body cannot necessarily diagnose a problem with a given bone, nor know how to splint one if an accident occurred. Even if taken through a number of steps necessary in splinting a bone, it’s unlikely that a person would do it correctly without having experienced it either first-hand, or vicariously, by observing another person in the learning process theorists refer to as ‘legitimate peripheral participation’.

There is a huge disconnect between knowing something in abstract and being able to make that knowledge actionable. In fact, emerging ideas about learning are beginning to suggest that learning is the act of making knowledge tangible through action, or what learning theorist George Siemens refers to as ‘forming connections’ between islands of knowledge.

Given this definition of learning as connection-forming, then all learning must result from experience, for experience underlies the process of forming said connections. In this regard,therefore, effective learning is a redundant statement. If one has learned, the experience has been effective. The question therefore becomes, how can we design experiences that allow learners to experiment with knowledge in context, encouraging them to form connections by experiencing a wide range of experiential possibilities around any given piece of information?

This is where serious games come in.

Games for Learning

At the most basic level, games can often provide the motivation to learn in cases where the learners have no other motivation to engage with the materials. Wrapping “boring” content in a trivia or shoot-em-up game format might make material that just needs to memorized a bit easier to “swallow”. Likewise, repeated engagement with interactive drill-and-practice environments provides the repetition that may be needed for learners to memorize and retain certain types of content. The first step towards learning is being open to the experience of learning. An unmotivated learner is simply incapable of taking enough interest in something to engage in the process of learning.

This approach is affectionately dubbed ‘chocolate-covered broccoli’ by educators and games researchers.  Keep the same educational material, but package it in a more appealing manner. The real success of games for learning, however, requires the educator to completely rethink their learning objectives and curricula with game play in mind.  One way to do this is to think of games as platforms for experiences that encourage learning.

Creating Learning Experiences

The trick is to place the learner firmly at the center of the learning experience, encourage him or her to take an active role in some way, and make sure that the learning situation is not abstracted from reality, but is placed directly in a real-world context, either physically or virtually. This environment may or may not include other learners, or it may simulate the responses and behaviors of other individuals. Though some structure will be in place, the learner will not progress linearly, as with traditional content, but will play in this environment, encountering both success and failure along the way.  Failure may, in fact, be the most critical aspect of this play, as we know that trial and error is one of the most significant ways in which people learn.

Creating learning experiences is most relevant to situations where the learner needs not only to learn something, but also needs to learn to what contexts that information or knowledge is most relevant. In a sense, this is how information and knowledge become wisdom, a critical need in this chaotic time when information abounds and critical scrutiny is key. And while it is certainly not possible for someone to learn everything they need to from a simulation, as even pilots leave their simulators for real planes eventually, attempts to leverage them in the manner outlined above may provide some crucial first steps in bridging the gap between abstract, theoretical knowledge and the real-world contexts in which we inevitably must operate. As I see it, this is the sweet spot for games and simulations, allowing us to play with myriad possibilities embedded in the situations we experience or might encounter, so that we may achieve greater confidence in our abilities and capabilities, both present and future.


The World’s Most Exciting Serious Games

Phantomation, MIT Games (Animation)
Mission US: Flight to Freedom (Life Skills)
Play Forward: Elm City Stories, Schell Games and Digital Mill (Healthcare/Medical)
Cornak,  Succubus Interactive (Business)
DragonBox Algebra 12, WeWantToKnow AS (Education)
Game Over Gopher, New Mexico State University Learning Games Lab (Education)
Planting the Seed, Canadian Space Agency (Education)
Practice Operations, Muzzy Lane Operations (Education)
Cool School: Where Peace Rules (Life Skills)
Middle School Confidential 1: Be Confident in Who You Are (Life Skills)
Who Am I? Race Awareness Game (Life Skills)
Argument Wars (Civics)

Serious Games at Big Fish

In other posts we’ve discussed how even entertainment games can help with learning. There are a number of Big Fish titles that help create the experiences I have discussed in this article, like managing a business, running a farm or restaurant empire, and engineering or architecture.  It might seem like mere fun, but that doesn’t mean you can’t learn some serious skills.