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

Network Lunch at Dutch Game Garden

Dutch Game Garden
Dutch Game Garden

Kars Alfrink of Hubbub invited me to come to a network lunch at the Dutch Game Garden in Utrecht last Wednesday.

I hadn’t been there before and was pleasantly surprised with the level of game-related development activity the directors Viktor Wijnen and Jan-Pieter van Seventer have managed to organize in a single building. More than 30 game organizations have their offices in the building, they have an incubator function and they sponsor a Game Developers Club geared for increasing the level of collaboration between students of game design. Commercial companies and educational institutes are mixed. Smart concepts like the option to have a virtual office or the renting of single desks have made this the obvious place to be for anybody interested in the gaming scene.

It must be possible to use this cross-pollination concept for other domains too. Where is the “Dutch Industrial Design Garden” or the “Dutch Journalism Garden” or the “Dutch Indie Multimedia Publishing Garden”? It will be hard to think of a better way to induce innovation in a domain on a particular location.

Kars showed me his book collection and talked about some of the design projects he is doing. I’ve written before about Code 4, he is working on a game for Het Universiteitsmuseum in which parents and children use a single iPhone to explore the museum and compete with each other and he gave me some background on the ideas behind Pig Chase, a game that will be played between humans and pigs:


A new theme for my thinking about learning and working will be the idea of the reflective practitioner nicely defined in Wikipedia as somebody with the capacity to reflect on action so as to engage in a process of contineous learning. Kars obviously embodies this spirit (read about his talk at Lift12 if your are in doubt: The Social Contract Put at Play). I have not often seen this level of deep thinking about what you are trying to accomplish with games with any of the other game “vendors” that I’ve met in the last year. Actually, I think we lack reflective practitioners in general in the learning industry. How can we change this?

I thoroughly enjoyed playing some of the games at the lunch by the way. My personal favorite of the afternoon was “Tennes”, made by the two-man game studio Vlambeer. Below an interview with the duo:


Their games are insanely fun to play. I’ve just lost two and half hours on Radical Fishing, their “simulation of the noble pastime that is traditional redneck fishing”, and I love everything about Luftrauser:


5 Questions from Traintool: Teaching Soft Skills Online

Recently I was asked a few questions by Traintool about using training softs skills online. Below the questions and answers (the original is here, the session was in Dutch which is available here):

1. To what extent to you believe soft skills can be trained online?
“Believe” is probably the right verb for this question. Learning technology is still too often driven by opinions. Having said so, I definitely believe in it. First: a lot of soft skills have become online skills: how you behave in an online community, how you share knowledge through microblogging, or how you can be a good team member in an international virtual team. Additionally, it’s perfectly possible to practice all sorts of soft skills online. I see a natural increase of the “fidelity” of the practice process: from practicing in simple webchats, to practice in teleconferences, to practice with webcams or maybe even telepresence spaces. Finally, I think good design enables training of all sorts of skills.

2. What developments in the field of online training of soft skills do you find most promising? Can you name an example?
The biggest “opportunity space” is gaming. Recently I have been investigating two examples of games that try to train soft skills online:

  • X-Team is a 3D game in which you have to visit as many pagodes as possible, before getting to the finish line in time. These pagodes are at islands that can only be reached through bridges. Each bridge can only be crossed a limited number of times (you are with 12, but only 6 people can cross the bridge, wat do you do?). Everything is measured, making it easy to guide a teambuilding process through facilitation and adjusting the game’s parameters.
  • Code 4 from Hubbub and Demovides is a game that is played in runs of three weeks. This video explains the game (Dutch):


3. What do you think is the biggest challenge in training soft skills online?
Practice is key in developing skills, so that’s the biggest challenge: How do you get people to do what they find really difficult? How do you get them beyond their fear of trying new behavior? Well developed games might just be the solution to this.

4. In the evolution of learning, are there things you hope/desire and/or you’re afraid of? Alan Kay has a famous definition of technology: “Technology is everything that didn’t exist when you were born”. His pal Danny Hillis has an even better definition: “Technology is everything that doesn’t work yet”. We no longer call an elevator, technology. So I’m looking forward to seeing things we still call technology, actually work. For a nice example of how that could look like for smartphones with apps, read this (under “Why Mobile Apps Must Die”).

Being afraid is not something that fits in with how I look at life. I think we, as people, will always figure out our relationship with technology. But if I have to name something, I worry about the integrity of the Internet with the web as a platform for innovation on top of it. The five ”stacks” (as Bruce Sterling calls them): Amazon, Apple, Google, Microsoft and Facebook are all working hard to build closed ecosystems. We are going to suffer from this in the coming years and it will probably really have to hurt before these silos will be opened up.

5. What weblogs, people or organisations inspire you?
The person I learn a lot from is Stephen Downes. He writes a daily newsletter about this things he, as a philosopher, technologist and education theorist, finds interesting. His newsletter is published under a Creative Commons license and you can freely subscribe. Additionally, I keep a close eye on George Siemens and the Internet Time Alliance and I try to make time to read Audrey Watters: a learning technology journalist with a punk attitude. I keep on top of internet technology in general by listening to Guardian Tech Weekly and the shows of Leo Laporte (especially This Week in Tech). Thinkers such as Clay Shirky, Yochai Benkler, Lawrence Lessig and Douglas Rushkoff guide me.

One of my personal heroes is Martin Dougiamas, inventor of Moodle. It’s his natural leadership and personal character that have made Moodle as succesful as it is today, making even a giant such as Blackboard take notice.

Other organisations that inspire me are those that democratize education and technology in a non-commercial way. Think of Mozilla architects of the open internet (they also have a learning outfit and work hard at an Open Badges infrastructure), or the Peer 2 Peer University, Tactical Technology Collective and Ushahidi. It is no coincidence that all these projects are open-source. I believe in the value of open-source a lot, from a practical and a moral standpoint.