The other day I got an email asking me some questions about serious games. Here are the questions and my answers.
1) What are the advantages of serious games?
One advantage of serious games is they provide two things most traditional instruction does not. The first is the acceptance of failure and second is the encouragement of replayability. In most instructional settings, any kind of failure is demeaned wrong or “bad” and learners quickly discover that only one answer is appropriate. So they only focus on one thing, getting the right answer, not necessarily learning the content. In most modern work environments, there are many ways of solving problems, dealing with obstacles and creatively finding solutions–there is often more than one right answer. Games encourage failure and exploration, two keys to modern workplace success.
Second, even if a game is not about problem-solving, the replayability of a game–the tendency of people to play a well-designed game over and over again means that knowledge is reinforced and that the learner is reviewing the information contained in the serious game.
2) Does research prove that serious games really promote learning (and maybe retention) as well as–or better–than traditional learning?
Research can only provide evidence to support hypothesis or ideas but can’t prove something. This might seem like a silly point but, it is important to understand that nothing is written in stone as a result of research. There are always confounding variables. So research needs to be a guideline but can’t be taken as “proving” anything. This means that if a research paper shows that a game did not promote learning, that doesn’t mean learning can’t occur from games. It means that particular game doesn’t promote learning and vice versa.
What a practitioner needs is evidence from dozens and dozens of studies to obtain what the preponderance of evidence supports. These studies are called a meta-analysis. Here is some evidence from a couple of meta-analysis studies:
A) Serious games can promote learning better than lectures, discussions and role-plays when they are highly interactive.
B)Serious games are most effective for learning when the instructor first briefs the learners on what they are expected to learn during the game, the learners play the game and then the instructor debriefs the students.
C) Serious games are most effective for learning when they are played in a group rather than as individuals.
3) Are preferences for playing serious games (in the corporate arena, anyway) likely to vary among age groups (Boomers, Gen-X, Millennials, etc.)?
There does seem to be a preference around familiarity with games in terms of accepting games for learning. If a person has grown up playing games (as many but not all Millennials have) then they tend to be more accepting of serious games for learning. If someone has not, they tend to look toward games for learning with more distrust and uncertainty. Age isn’t the factor, its familiarity–so younger people do seem to be more familiar with video games but that’s not a universal truth.
Regardless of the game playing past, it seems that no matter what age, learners learn best from engagement and learners tend to be far more involved and active in a game than they are in traditional instructional situations. Most of the time instructional designers think of content first when they are designing instruction. Most game designers think of action and activity first, content second.
This different perspective is important. We know that engaged learners learn more and are more focused than learners who are passively listening to lectures and that when a learner is engaged in a discussion, he or she is more likely to be thinking about what they are going to be saying next rather than synthesizing concepts or ideas (if they choose to participate in the discussion at all.)
4) Should games be used to teach everything?
No, just like any other instructional approach, sometimes games work well and sometimes they do not. We can’t use games to teach everything for development, costs and instructional reasons. Additionally, we should not think everyone will “love” games. Some people really don’t like to play games and they are usually really proud of it. So don’t treat instructional games as a panacea, instead, treat them as another tool in your instructional tool kit.