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The Serious Game of Learning


There is a great deal of hype around "serious games" and their impact on learning. Is it really going to change training or is this just another technological flash in the pan? Donald Taylor gives his take on the prospects of this use of games for learning.

Serious games are suddenly news. According to recent research, computer-based games will be used for training in most organisations within five years. But it also seems that nobody can agree about much in the field of serious games – including whether that is even the right term to use.
So just what are serious games, and what impact will they have on learning and development?

While games are part of every child’s educational experience, the consensus is that serious games refers to the application of IT to games ‘for primarily non-entertainment purposes’, a definition that apparently – sadly – includes learning.

War games
Grown-up, systematic, games-based learning has been with us at least since 1824, when Lieutenant von Reisswitz invented Kriegspiel for the military training of Prussian officers. A century and a half later, the first serious game is generally considered to have been Army Battlezone, Atari’s 1980 abortive adaptation of its Battlezone Game for the US Army. Given this start, who would have predicted today’s widespread popularity of The game – effectively now a recruitment tool for the US Army – currently has over eight million registered players.

What changed between Army Battlezone and America’s Army? Simple: the technology caught up with the vision.

Modern net-based platforms and processing power make possible rapid interaction and simulation that is compellingly rich in detail – in particular in massive multiplayer online games (MMOG). The change has been recent – the pivotal Serious Games Initiative was only founded in 2002, and corporate interest in the use of games for learning is even more recent.

You cannot be serious?
The phrase serious gaming is supposed to express this idea of using games for more than just entertainment, but the term raises hackles among many bloggers in the field. Donald Clark (author of a white paper on this for Epic) suggested that serious is precisely what games shouldn’t try to be, and met a rejoinder from Booz Allen Hamilton’s Mark Oehlert. Learning designer Patrick Dunn tried to be even-handed in his posting about the term, but essentially all agree that the word ‘game’ is going to cause trouble with any organisation’s board and maybe with the HR department, too.

Vaughan Waller of Waller Hart, and Martine Parry of the Apply Group attempted to shed some light on terminology and the whole field of serious games in a recently completed year-long survey. Corporate Learning Games in Europe polled views from games developers, the learning industry and the corporate marketplace. The corporate respondents apparently saw great potential for games in learning: 100% agreed with the question ‘Do you see great potential for using games in organisational learning?’ and 66% predicted mainstream adoption within five years. As predicted by the bloggers, however, over 40% thought the perception of games at management level would prevent short term adoption.

Is it hype or happening?
So is this just another example of a love of the new? Are these gaming enthusiasts the same people who predicted in 1999 that e-learning would lead to the death of the classroom in a few short years? Waller and Parry are more circumspect. They say that by 2012 between 100 and 135 of the Global Fortune 500 will have adopted gaming for learning, with the USA, UK and Germany leading the way.

A lot of surveys are sponsored by vendors for their PR value, and the results can be taken with a pinch of salt. Waller and Parrys’ wasn’t, though, and so earns more credence, especially when it’s backed up by real-world experience – as it is by one leading vendor.

Graeme Duncan of Caspian Learning has been involved as a vendor in the field since 2002, and says that there is substance behind the recent hype. Caspian has found that organisations are now ready to make a real commitment to games-based learning: “We are starting to see a real budgeted appetite for the use of games approaches and technologies.” He points to a recent increase in the demand for their services and products.

Beyond the arcade
While there may be wide uncertainty about the term serious games, there is at least consensus that mainstream organisations are likely to adopt the technology for training in the near future. And they won’t all be related to arcade games shoot-’em-ups. Titles such as Darfur is Dying and World Without Oil show that games playing has already developed well beyond the interests of the stereotype geek boy teenager.

But have arcade games had another effect - on expectations? Do users believe that any games or simulation should naturally have high-quality, rapidly-rendered graphics, and a great deal of interaction? Not always. Apparently context is king. Most users of games-for-learning compare their experience not with Grand Theft Auto or Gears of War, but with other packages they’ve used for learning. It’s a comparison that the serious game almost always wins.

Even if games needn’t reach these levels of sophistication, those looking for serious games are more likely to go to a specialist software house than to develop them in-house, and clusters of producers have now sprung up, for example in North Carolina. Alternatively, they may lease an existing multi-player game platform and populate it with their own content. They could also use Second Life for meeting and training, as IBM did until recently. As Eliane Alhadeff points out on her Future-Making blog, the commercial models for producing serious games have expanded as gaming goes mainstream.

It seems, then, that serious games are here to stay, and can offer an engaging experience that – in some cases – justifies the investment required in development. Does that mean that gaming will sweep all before it? Of course not. As Graeme Duncan of Caspian cautions, games are only part of the learning mix: “We should be focussing on what games do well that might have pedagogical relevance. This includes motivation, engagement, interactivity, providing rewards and reinforcement for skill improvement.”

In other words we can expect serious games to be an additional, tool in the educational box, if not the cheapest.

About the author: Donald H Taylor is Alliances Director at InfoBasis, and Chairman of the Learning Technologies and IITT National Trainers conferences. In January he was presented with the Colin Corder Award for outstanding services to IT training. He has a regular blog at and can be contacted at [email protected]. He has been a TrainingZone member since 2003.


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