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

Teaching as a Subversive Activity – A Short Review

Teaching as a Subversive Activity
Teaching as a Subversive Activity

Anything with “subversive” in the title has my attention, especially if it relates to teaching.

Even though this book is more than 40 years old (1969) Postman and Weingartner are making an argument that is very similar to the argument that is being made today around the bankruptcy of an educational system that is based on the needs of an industrial society. They write that for the first time in history change has become so fast that we can’t assume that what made sense to us, makes sense to our children. This means that the focus of education should shift towards helping children learn how to learn (“leren leren” as we would say in Dutch). Teachers (and thus teacher education) are the starting points to initiate this change.

Their suggested way to do this is by the “Inquiry Method”: asking questions of students and allowing students to formulate their own questions. Very similar to what others might call the Socratic method. The inquiry method is grounded in the realisation that we always perceive the world with our own meaning making machinery. People will only change if they can give meaning to what they learn in some way. The students own thinking is the only starting point for learning.

Reading this book has made me reflect hard on my own teaching practices. I dare say that it will fundamentally change the way I will address any future classrooms. I will have to start by asking myself the following questions:

What am I going to have my students do today?
What’s it good for?
How do I know?

There are many things to quote from the book, but let me just focus on a statement from the end of the book:

Learning to suspend judgment can be most liberating. You might find that it makes you a better learner (meaning maker) too.

If you then think about this statement in the context of judging (i.e. grading) students you should ask yourself the following set of questions:

  1. To what extent does my own background block me from understanding the behaviour of this student?
  2. Are my own values greatly different from those of the student?
  3. To what extent have I made an effort to understand how things look from this student’s point of view?
  4. To what extent am I rewarding or penalizing the student for his acceptance or rejection of my interests?
  5. To what extent am I rewarding a student for merely saying what I want to hear, whether or not he believes or understands what he is saying?

I used to do this as a teacher and found the results quite disturbing. As the authors write:

A grade is as much a product of the teacher’s characteristics, ability, and behaviour as of the student’s.

How many teacher’s realize this?

The book is well summarized in it’s last paragraph (although it is very dense and requires reading the book to get its full meaning):

The new education, in sum, is new because it consists of having students use the concepts most appropriate to the world in which we must live. All of these concepts constitute the dynamics of the questing-questioning, meaning-making process that can be called “learning how to learn.” This comprises a posture of stability from which to deal fruitfully with change. The purpose is to help all students develop built-in shockproof crap detectors as basic equipment in their survival kits.

You have to love “crap detection” as the ultimate skill for our times!