What are serious games? 

Serious Games leverage the power of computer games design techniques and mechanics to captivate and engage end-users for purposes beyond pure entertainment. While ensuring learners are challenged and motivated, the main purpose of a Serious Game is to develop new knowledge, skills and to ultimately produce a behaviour change. Serious Games enable learners to undertake tasks and experience situations which would otherwise be impossible and/or undesirable to practice in the real world for reasons of cost, time, logistics and safety.

Far too much e-learning content involves heaping reams of mainly text-based information upon learners, dropping in some small multimedia elements and movies and then bolting on a simplistic drag ‘n’ drop quiz or Multiple Choice Quiz assessment whereupon the user receives some notional feedback along the lines of:

Congratulations user, you scored 64.7%...we suggest that you revisit chapters 3,5,6,9 & 11 (which you have just read) and then retake the (same) test.

The majority reaction would be to answer that with a resounding; “No thanks!” The content is not going to react differently to using it the second time around. The ‘experience’ will be exactly the same each and every time it is ‘replayed’. This is not an engaging experience, it is not interactive and why should a busy individual feel compelled to commit their time and effort to it. This is a classic (automated) “Tell, Test” approach to instruction. The ‘gamer generation’ are increasingly frustrated by this.

Now compare that to a game (which is a powerful software application).

  • Have realistic and relevant environments and systems which users can ‘explore’.
  • Have clearly defined (overt) rules: “If your wings break you will crash”, “If you step on a landmine it will blow up”, or “if you run out of cash you will go bust”.
  • Have clear objectives – “save the princess from the big scary monkey”, “double turnover in 3 years”.
  • Are truly interactive; everything that the learner does, or does not do, has an effect and are thus highly experiential.
  • Have clear outcomes; “You were shot…you are dead”, “You have run out of cash and have been closed down”. They provide meaningful and relevant feedback (e.g. because of your actions or lack of actions, the plane crashed, the cash ran out, the employees quit) to show the learner the consequences of their decisions and actions. This is important because the user knows explicitly why a particular outcome happened and allows them to assess different approaches to the problem in an informed manner.
  • Are adaptive; they automatically track the user’s progress and performance to maintain a careful balance between boredom (because it is too easy) and frustration (because it is too hard). Static content (e-Learning) cannot be easily designed to achieve this and is therefore customised to a specific audience and of very limited use elsewhere.
  • Require (and foster) a level of cognitive application from the user that far exceeds reading text and then regurgitating facts. Gamers analyse huge quantities of information from a variety of sources. Games encourage, for example, problem-solving, creative thinking, lateral thinking, investigation and trial and error all of which are valuable in the workplace.
  • Are genuinely enjoyable. This leads to longer attention spans, improved attentiveness and positive feelings.


The potential of games to drive behaviour change has been well known by any gamer and a growing number evangelists including academics researchers, schools and multinational blue chip corporations. Whether you call them Gamification, Serious Games, Simulations, Edutainment, or whatever, they all have one thing in common: they use game mechanics and design principles to change behaviour. Whether that’s behaviour to buy a specific product, increase brand loyalty or raise awareness or a particular process or knowledge area they all part of the same approach. And they are making a serious impact on how we learn.


Serious Games are making training more engaging

When we consider engagement as one of our main arguments for serious games we must consider how we engage the users. We've pointed out many times on this blog before that graphics do not equal engagement. Just by throwing content into a shiny new environment will not engage the audience. Pacing is part of the engagement process. However what we come up against many times during the design phase is a resistance to using any time at all within the game for narrative development, or building up the tension; there is less and less room for engagement.

We understand that time is money and ROI must be calculated on all training but by just focusing on what you can cram into a serious game, by analysing every step, every sentence, you are missing out on the value they can offer your organisation. With correct pacing, and using serious games to their greatest extent, we can improve on engagement, interest in the content and meet our real goal of creating more successful learners.


Serious Games are improving audience reach

Serious Gaming has the potential to significantly improve the quality of training activities and initiatives in relation to digital training. One of the main factors e-learning is currently facing is very high dropout rates, up to 70% in some organisations. If you look at the figures surrounding the games industry alone one can see the significant appeal of this medium. The computer & videogame industry has more or less mastered the art of using computer technology to not only captivate its audience but to also persuade it to spend approximately $10bn a year (2009) in the US alone.


Serious Games allow you to explore those hard to teach subjects

Simulation and Role Play are two key genres of entertainment-orientated games that many people deem to be particularly appropriate for adoption as training tools.

A simulated environment (e.g. the user support desk), a simulated system (e.g. a production line) or a realistically recreated role play scenario (e.g. a sales meeting) can allow learners to experience something that is too costly, too risky or even physically impossible to achieve in the real world. You would not let your new trainee managers run your business but you would like them to fully understand every facet of your business as early as possible.


Serious Games are delivering a return

Replayability is a key advantage of Serious Games. Learners play out a particular strategy or adopt a certain approach, they may fail or not quite deliver the desired outcome; however, they just need to press the reset button and try a different approach, no harm done, only positive reinforcement of best practice. ‘Learning by doing’ and ‘experiential learning’ are possibly overused terms in this industry, but the practice of repetition with varying inputs and outputs is very pertinent to building a deep understanding of scenarios, concepts, processes and systems.

This means that not just the large corporations can benefit from what simulations offer.  On measuring the effect of serious games (and simulations), Return on Engagement is a more valuable measure than typical ROI:

  • Observation: During play observation, we can learn so much about a user’s engagement level. Examining their body language for example we can see if they are leaning in, exploring the game world, and paying attention to the information that is presented to them. By listening to the users, especially if they are playing together in a team, or discussing their actions in a debrief we can truly get an understanding of how much users have taken in.
  • Replay Statistics: If you’re looking for more hard and concrete data you can look at how often users revisit your game. This data is readily available on most LMS’s and of course, when we host the games ourselves we can easily access the number of times players re-attempt a scenario or module.
  • Behaviour Change: The gold standard for knowing if you have made an impact is if the end user makes a change, consciously or unconsciously to their behaviour. This may be in the form of internal requests to seek out more information on a topic or a desire to tell others what they have discovered to implementing lessons they have learnt in the game.
  • Formal assessment: The traditional approach to measuring the effect of a training programme is, of course, a formal assessment. Be it a multiple question quiz or situational judgement assessment, formal standardised testing is still popular in many courses. In games, we can still build this in but we always try to approach formal assessment in a softer way. Games lend themselves naturally to situational judgement assessment, and of course, we all know we can do multiple choice questions and branching tree structures.  That data can be captured as a score in the LMS or as a detailed breakdown given to the user highlighting their strengths and areas they need to focus on.

In any case, research by Sitzmann and Ely titled “A Meta-Analytic Examination of the Effectiveness of Computer-Based Simulation Games” By the University of Colorado Denver Business School (Oct 2010) found that overall, declarative knowledge was 11% higher for trainees taught with simulation games than a comparison group; procedural knowledge was 14% higher; retention was 9% higher; and self-efficacy was 20% higher.


Final Thoughts

If you strip away all the techno-wizardry of the discussion and move to a psychological perspective, games are essentially highly experiential software applications which foster deep levels of cognitive activity, e.g. higher-level thinking skills such as conflict resolution or negotiation, emotional and physical responses.

Games are nothing more than vividly recreated environments or systems in which the user has a meaningful objective; be it ‘how to kill 100 aliens as fast as possible without dying yourself’ or ‘how to settle a contractual dispute with a fictional client’. It is these meaningful goals that derive satisfaction for the learner. And ultimately if the application enables the learner to solve that same problem effectively back in the real world then doubtless the learner’s employer will also derive satisfaction!