Serious Gaming, The Next Frontier for Learning?

In late October I hosted a set of Webinars titled “Serious Gaming – The Next Frontier for Learning?”.

These were very interactive webinars, or as I called them, Socratic Webinars (hat tip to Humberto Schwab). All participants had to agree to the following rules:

  • This is not a discussion: We are in the process of thinking together, trying to answer a few questions.
  • You can only speak by changing your feedback status in the online meeting to purple and only when you’ve been given the floor by me.
  • You can only speak if you are capable of repeating what the person before you has said and can summarize the previous 10 minutes of discussion.

Together we discussed a few questions. Below a reflection on what was discussed.

1. What is a game?

A game is hard to define. There is no single and unique set of characteristics that defines a game. Jesse Schell has listed the following set of things that we thinks a game should be (from the fabulous book The Art of Game Design):

  • Games are entered willfully
  • Games have goals
  • Games have conflict
  • Games have rules
  • Games can be won and lost
  • Games are interactive
  • Games have challenge
  • Games can create their own internal value
  • Games engage players
  • Games are closed, formal systems

My favourite definition of what a game is comes from Bernard Suits in The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia:

To play a game is to engage in activity directed towards bringing about a specific state of affairs, using only means permitted by rules, where the rules prohibit more efficient in favor of less efficient means, and where such rules are accepted just because they make possible such activity… playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.

I think he is spot-on when he sees gaming as overcoming unnecessary obstacles.

There are (at least) two problems to overcome when we want to apply serious games in a large organization. The first being that games are usually played voluntarily. This is not always the case when people are required to play a game in the learning context. The second problem is that games, by definition, use inefficient means. Inefficiency is not something that commercial enterprises are usually interested in.

Casper Hartevelt tries to untangle these problems in the book Triadic Game Design – Balancing Reality, Meaning and Play of which a lot can be read online.

Now that we are talking about definitions it makes sense to make clear that “gamification” is not really the same thing as serious games. Gamification applies game-principles to things that aren’t games (e.g. getting a badge for filing your expenses) as a way to make those things more compelling.

2. What types of games for learning (i.e. serious games or games with a purpose) exist?

To make it easier to discuss games, we created four (relatively abitrary) groups:

  1. Games to be played by people who are physically together. This can be board games, but also physical games as icebreakers. Examples are games that can be played with the Foresight Cards or many of the activities in the book Gamestorming – A playbook for innovators, rule-breakers and changemakers. An interesting game that was mentioned during the webinars is The Accounting Game.
  2. 2D Computer Games are very often games that could also have been created as a boardgame. Quite often these games have a model behind them and give people insight into these models by letting them play with it. The 2D game that taught me the most is Hidden Agenda (very old!). An example from the energy industry is OilSim by Simprentis.
  3. 3D Computer Games usually try and give a real depiction of a particular location. The player is an agent in the game (either from a first person or a third person perspective). These games are very good to help people practice with skills in a physical world. A nice example is the Virtual Incident Management Training by CATT Lab.
  4. Alternate Reality Games (ARGs) bring a game component into the real world, occasionally blurring the distinction between reality and the game. Probably the most famous example is World Without Oil.

In computer games it also makes sense to make a distinction between single player games and multiplayer games. The later can be synchronous (where everybody needs to be online at the same time, like X-Team’s Mission Island) and asynchronous.

Simulation aren’t necessarily games. They allow people to play with the model that is behind the simulation. If we add an “unnecessary obstacle” to the simulation (e.g. you need to finish within 2 minutes), then we have turned it into a game.

3. How can games be used for learning and for what type of learning problems?

The best way to learn is “learning by doing” or work-based learning. Games allow people to practice (more than traditional e-learning and more than most classrooms). In the standard competency progression from Awareness -> Knowledge -> Skill -> Mastery, we think that games can get people to skill and on their first steps towards mastery.

Games are especially suitable in the following situations:

  • When practicing in real life is too costly (or when mistakes are not acceptable)
  • When practicing in real life is too dangerous
  • When you want to practice situations that are extremely rare in real life (once-in-a-career events)
  • When other ways of learning can’t provide the level of complexity that is necessary (you need to be closer to reality) (see Ender’s Game for some scary science fiction in this area)

There are also people who see games as a way to motivate a younger generation to learn (they might be disconnected from the current learning practices). Games can make something that might not be very interesting more fun. Although there are some theoretical problems with this approach, it is one that is taken more and for educating children. See for example the Institute of Play or ASU’s Center for Games and Impact.

Jane McGonical, a famous game designer has written a whole book about why games can make us better and help us change the world. You can watch her TED talk here:


Games can truly be creative and transformative experiences and usually require a highly creative and reflective creator to be truly great. Take a look at the work of Kars Alfrink from Hubbub, New Games for Social Change. He has created a set of very interesting games with real social impact:

  • Beestenbende, a game for families in museums
  • Code 4, a game to create a different type of mindset in a bureaucratic organization
  • Pig chase, a game that humans can play with pigs

8 thoughts on “Serious Gaming, The Next Frontier for Learning?

  1. Good spot! I never saw that before. It is such a great way to learn accounting. I think I understand (ie really, deeply know how the system works) much better than others I have met who learned in conventional ways that did not “stick” after exams. I am sure this will prove generally true of well designed, interactive, game based learning. Do you agree? Or is it just another learning style and it happens to suit me?

    1. I am conviced that it isn’t just another learning style, but that it actually allows people to experience and play with relatively complex materials. The fact that you have some form of agency in the what is shown to you makes all the difference.

  2. Interesting area to pursue Hans…any ideas to apply to mgmt development? Something akin to the famous test in the Star Trek films (Kobiashi I think…)…

    1. Thanks for your comment Owen. I think games are very well suited for management development, but currently businesses might prefer to send their high potentials to a nice hotel with sushi for lunch. I wouldn’t be surprised if we would see the use of games in management assessment first (see Knack for example). I have to admit that I’ve never seen any Star Trek (nor Star Wars for that matter), so not sure about that!

  3. Reblogged this on Classroom Aid and commented:
    In this reflection the following questions are addressed: 1. What is a game? 2.What types of games for learning (i.e. serious games or games with a purpose) exist? 3.How can games be used for learning and for what type of learning problems?

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