Effectiveness of serious games

The basic gist of this article is that no realistic conclusion can be made at this point about whether serious games are an effective learning tool or not, despite many ‘experts’ positive claims. This is for a few reasons, lack of a definition as to what a ‘serious game’ actually is and hugely varied control groups being two of the main ones.

What think is that serious games have huge potential, but they are not ‘the answer’ to successful learning. They’re just a tool, and a tool of the times – children are growing up with iPhones and tablets in their hands now, and technology is a huge part of their lives. To ignore it is futile, not to mention stupid. The article mentions it is “important to maintain a level of continuity and consistency between the tools used in education and users’ everyday lives” (pp. 207-208) which refers to this phenomenon.

Now how successful these serious games will be depends on various things that are not just the fact that they are a ‘serious game’. The article says, “researchers identified important criteria that enhance the effectiveness of the SG (story genre, immersion, fantasy, design and gameplay)” (209). These are not things that make up a successful serious game; these are things that make up a successful game, and stripping it back even further, a successful experience. If you remove the gameplay element, these are things that make up a good book, or a good movie. They’re talking about how well the game holds the attention of the user. So obviously to make a good serious game you need to create a good experience, but in a way that facilitates learning without breaking the immersion of the player. And following the experience line of thinking, what is a good experience to one person will not necessarily be the same for another. Learning is different for everyone, as is what we find enjoyable. Serious games are not the answer for everyone.

So from my rambling we get that a good serious game is:

> First and foremost, a successful game. This means it is engaging, immersive, and provokes the player to want to continue playing.

> Dedicated to teaching something. Obviously, you’re here to learn, and the game must focus on that in a way that you can remove your knowledge from the game space and apply it to real life.

> Not aimed at everyone. You can aim for a wide audience, but you must accept that games are not the answer for everyone. Some people like just sitting down with a textbook, and if that works for them, then great.

A couple of other important things:

208. “Serious games are games primarily focused on education rather than entertainment.”

209. “The use of serious games to promote health related behaviour change has a positive effect” > serious games do not just have to be about factual learning.


REF: Girard, C., Ecalle, J., & Magnant, A. (2013) Serious games as new educational tools: how effective are they? A meta-analysis of recent studies. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 29, 207 – 129


Gamification Issues

Ian Screiber, a game designer and game design teacher, offers an opposing look at the fad of ‘gamification’ that’s been flying around everywhere lately. The most important thing he says is this “extrinsic rewards destroy intrinsic motivation”. Gamification is basically swapping out one extrinsic reward – grades – for another – badges. This is kind of like replacing an apple pie with a strawberry tart; it looks different but it’s essentially the same thing; a dessert. Learning should be the motivator. Learning new stuff is fun; having new knowledge feels good. If you’re just aiming to get that badge, or get that grade, then often you’re not going to care about what you learn in order to get it. You’re going to do the least amount of work possible to have it in your hands, because that means getting it faster. It’s a flawed notion, and slapping game techniques on learning like this won’t necessarily work, though at the moment it seems ‘fun and new’.


REF: Schreiber, I. (2011, March 11). My problem with gamification [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://teachingdesign.blogspot.co.nz/2011/03/my-problem-with-gamification.html

Triple A Games and Learning

To be honest I haven’t really done the proper research on this and this is mostly speculation, but if it becomes important to my project (which is a possibility) I guess I’ll have to, somewhere. Basically, there are three main ways in which games that are not directly educational can teach us. These are by mechanics, narrative/storyline, and by extension.

Learning by Mechanics: This is where the actual controls and interface you use are what teaches you; the framework of the game over anything else. Card games like Yu-Gi-Oh and Pokemon with numerical based systems can teach quite advanced mathematics to young children – though whether they can access that information outside of the game world is possibly another story. Most video games help improve basic hand-eye coordination, but first person shooters such as Call of Duty or Halo are particularly good for this (in my opinion?) as they involve having to walk, change camera views and shoot simultaneously while also having to keep track of the overall map, your health and weapons and your current position in the game. Research has shown that this ability to take in a lot of things at once does transfer to real life. My third example is Portal, whose basic mechanics apply strictly to the rules of physics. The player grows to understand these rules as they progress through the game, and then has to apply them to complete levels.

Learning by Story/Narrative: Sometimes a game will have realistic historical context, or contain real people and figureheads. Children are more likely to take note of these facts, presented to them in a form they are interested in (i.e. the game) than they are in the classroom where they feel they are being forced to learn. Humans are built to learn. We enjoy it. The issue with schools is the manner in which they go about trying to facilitate learning. Hugely popular games that have taught millions of kids historical facts like this are the Age of Empires series and, more recently, the Assassin’s Creed series.

Learning by Extension: This way of learning takes the education out of the game itself and puts all of the responsibility of learning onto the player themselves. Basically, learning by extension is including objects, facts, names – anything, that means something “in real life”. Final Fantasy is a great perpetuator of this technique, stealing names for items, weapons, ships and characters from all over the place. For example, all of the summons in FF games are taken from various mythologies and religions around the world; Bahamut (Arabic), Shiva (Hindu), Odin (Norse) for example. Now that might not mean much if it wasn’t for fandoms. Maybe 1 or 2% of people will get so into a game or character and then look it up online, but when they do they might find a “did you mean” which, if they are interested, might lead them on a whole new journey. For example someone looking up Shiva might be amazed at the ideas behind the original Hindu deity and decide to learn more about Hindu gods, or even Hindu culture in general. This is how learning by extension is created; a self-led path of discovery.

Gamification – not always great.

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Memrise is a website where I’m currently building up a fair-sized Japanese vocab. And don’t get me wrong, it’s a great website. It uses scientific formulas to calculate how often you need to study a word or piece of information to get it to shift from your short term memory into your long term memory, and it seems to do a really good job. What I don’t like is its ‘gamification’ qualities.

If you look in the top right hand corner you’ll see points in the hundreds of thousands. That means nothing to me. Maybe they help you out if you’re competitive and you’re studying alongside a friend; I don’t know. It just seems kind of arbitrary to me. Even if you were to get really stuck into the competitive side of things and desire a place on the leaderboards, I feel the amount of points you get for certain things seems completely random and as such has little to no purpose. In any case, it seems like a tacky hook thrown on top of a fairly well thought out program.

Game Frame


2. “Faced with an unmotivated employee or student, our first instinct is to dangle a carrot (an incentive). If that doesn’t work, we threaten him.” Neither of these options work particularly well long term because we are simply ignoring the fact that the student/employee is bored and unmotivated because the experience is not fun.

3. “games… are made up of activities that we genuinely like.”

3. Josh Knowles – “To design a game is to take something – some basic enjoyable and/or satisfying interaction – and carefully apply rules to help players maximise the enjoyment and/or satisfaction they will have with that interaction.”

15. Gamers have community, and no longer play in isolation (not only social games, but platforms like the Xbox marketplace and such).

17. Demographic shift – from a study in 2010 only 6% of social gamers are under 21. The average age is 43, and more females are involved than males.

20. “The challenging and rich experiences that make up most popular video games are literally rewiring gamers’ brains as they play.”  – One week of playing tetris improved non-gamers visual recognition skills significantly. Young frequent gamers had a much stronger belief that things could be made better in the future.

26. Play is a state of mind; to a chef cooking something new might be play, while to me it might be work.

28. James Paul Gee said, “When learning stops, fun stops, and playing eventually stops. Learning… is ultimately a form of play – a principle almost always dismissed by schools.” Play is learning.

33. “Our brains’ seeking circuits are particularly sensitive to novelty.”

35. Games are a renewable source of entertainment. Also, “every successive game will likely be more interesting than the last, due to ever-increasing skills and a heightened perception of the experience.”

35. The only way to truly understand a game is to play it yourself – games are rather unique in this aspect.

41. “In games, your purpose is aligned with your tasks by design.”

42. “Games inspire critical thinking.”

44. “The best motivator and mood elevator of all is progress.” When people feel like they’re making rapid improvement at work they become happier and more driven to succeed.

46. Games allow – no, encourage – us to take risks, and we feel safe in doing so within the game environment. By taking these risks we learn faster, more comfortably – safe in the knowledge we can always restart and try again. If there is no ‘safety net’, so to speak, then we are less likely to step out of our comfort zone and try new, possibly risky, things.

63. People are likely to respond badly to ‘forced’ play that puts corporate priorities first – the beginnings of which are loyalty programs and such. This simply turns what should be play into work.

65. “Predictable rewards, like a free gift with purchase, simply become expectations.” People react better to variable rewards, surprise ones.

65. “The presence of a stated reward confuses us about why we are doing something.” Again, rewards can turn play into work. If we are always searching for the extrinsic values, we may miss out on the intrinsic value of the exercise.

REF: Dignan, A. (2011). Game frame : using games as a strategy for success. New York: Free Press.

Indie Games: the movie

>The basic formula of level design is when you start out you need to teach the player how to play. For every level in the first chapter you have to have some mechanic forcing the player to do something new to beat the level.

>It teaches the player that an action is possible, and also makes the player feel a sense of achievement as they feel they discovered something themselves.

>You need to be able to employ a mechanic in at least three to four different ways, or else it is a waste of space (i.e. saws, moving saws, rotating saws).

Edmund McMillian, Super Meat Boy creator.


REF: Pajot, L. (Director). (2012). Indie Games, the Movie [Documentary]. United States


This is a game in which you are put in the position of a low class American on your last $1000 and told to survive for a month. It kind of opens your eyes to how shocking the system is. If a person cannot survive working full-time on minimum wage then there is something wrong with your country. 40 hours of minimum wage work in New Zealand will get you around $470, after tax. I can’t speak for those who have to account for a child, but as a single person living in the middle of the city I can get by (barely) on an allowance of $180 a week. I know there is a fair amount of poverty up north (in Kaitaia, Kawakawa and such) but those are generally people who can’t get jobs, not those who work full-time.

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In any case, it’s a nicely laid out game and fairly hard-hitting. In a few cases I chose to spend the money rather than take the free option of ‘ask a friend’ because I felt in that situation I’d be embarrassed to ask for handouts.