Serious games are just…games

I keep delving into the different issues clinging to the field of serious games.

I keep pondering whether or not serious games are the right approach to game based learning.

First and foremost, though, I keep wondering why serious games are not better games.

Serious games should be no less “gamey” than any good game out there.

Let’s up the ante, raising the bar even further.

Serious games should be able to go toe-to-toe with any good game out there.

I recently read Serious Games “Ought to be Focusing as Much on the Gaming Aspects as on the Message”, in which Nordine Ghachi points very much in the same direction:

I don’t think that serious games are under threat, quite the opposite. Their time will have really come when serious game creators start according at least the same level of importance to the video gaming potential as to the “serious” message that the game is trying to get across. Let’s imagine a serious game that is so well designed, such a fun game and so addictive that it creates the sort of buzz that Uncharted 3 (Playstation) for instance is doing at the moment

To get there, it’s important that we shift our focus, and design games where learning is much more as described in The Play’s The Thing:

Many popular games teach important skills and convey valuable knowledge, not in a heavy-handed “pay attention, you’re about to learn something” way, but through the intrinsic challenge-based, problem-solving, storytelling, and, oh yes, fun nature of the games themselves

Uncharted might be an intimidating example, as developer Naughty Dog is consistently hailed for incredible production value, great voice-acting, effective storytelling and so on. It’s terribly linear, yes, but most players still find it terribly enjoyable (this player included).

That’s exactly why it’s a great example, reminding developers to aim high.

“But there’s not enough money in making serious games, severely limiting what you can do”.

At least two answers to that.

First off, you don’t need to mirror the scope and production values of Uncharted; just the  ambition to actually create a blast of a game, which people really, intensely want to play. Such experiences are not determined by your budget, but by your creativity and skills as a game designer. Indies are great examples of this, never reaching the budgets nor mainstream appeal of Uncharted or Modern Warfare, but providing one fantastic, innovative, surprising hit after another.

Secondly, you could consider changing your perception of your end users.

Usually, developers of serious games have a relatively limited target audience – be it education, corporate training, political campaigns or what have you. Sometimes the game is a direct response to a client, sometimes developers create their own serious game IP. Either way, the market is quite small.

If your game is actually good enough, you should be able to break free of this self-imposed limitation. If your game is as good as any game, you should not consider some educational niche your only possible outlet.

Why not make games for everyone to enjoy?

Make good games, that people actually want to play.

If the game also fulfils specific learning purposes, that’s a nice bonus, but that shouldn’t come first, really.

My 2012

2011 is rapidly drawing to a close, and even though I’m knee-deep in unfinished business, I’ll quickly throw a few pointers for the year ahead of us.

I’m usually most keen to be looking forwards, but a quick glance at current projects might be relevant:

  • As some of you may know, I’ve been working with GameIT College in Grenaa, Denmark, for some time and happily continue this splendid tradition.  It’s a bunch of passionate, inspiring people working with games in so many different ways, that I’m at a loss describing it in brief. In short, it’s an upper secondary education, where we do our best to include games as frequently and as qualified as possible. 
  • Springing from this longstanding collaboration, I’ve been enrolled in the project titled “Scandinavian Game Developers“, where we aim to explore and develop better possibilities for entrepreneurs in the game industry. Oh, and of course I couldn’t help but start tweeting – as @scangame.
  • Since September, I’ve been working with Trine Juul Røttig and several other good people to “translate” the very inspiring twitter-phenomenon “edchat” into a Danish equivalent. Trine dubbed it #skolechat, and I quickly followed suit, made and since then we’ve been having weekly chats on issues related to education in Denmark
  • I’ll continue to be working with the terrific people in the Danish Game Council to explore how we can keep improving the way we write and talk about video games.
  • I’ve been working with the main public library here in Aarhus, experimenting with the role of games in the library, and I hope we’ll be able to keep collaborating in 2012 and beyond.
  • We’ve been doing the initial groundwork for establishing a less fragmented, more transparent environment and network for people working with and interested in games in Aarhus and the middle region of Jutland. Without knowing the exact solution, we’ll keep working on this
  • I keep writing. I’ll never stop writing. Here on the blog, on other blogs, articles for relevant contexts, chapters and so on. I love writing.
  • Without knowing the frequency, I’ll also be giving a number of talks on games, digital media, learning, entrepreneurship and stuff like that, and I always welcome invitations to talk about things I’m interested in (and know a little about)

Somewhere in between those exciting activities (and playing as many games as possible), I seem to have a little extra time (don’t ask where I found it). I could just choose to spend that time relaxing, of course, but that’s not really my style. Instead, I’d like to venture into new territory of some kind. I need to keep evolving, keep challenging myself, keep seeing the world from new perspectives.

Here’s an idea.

Why don’t you help me spend that time the best possible way?

I’m always up for a challenge, I love surprises, and I’m all for experimentation, so any suggestion is welcome. If you want inspiration, here’s some of the areas I would like to explore further – in random order:

  • Teacher education & supplementary training in relation to games, digital media etc
  • Games & libraries
  • Games & entrepreneurship
  • Promoting sharing & transparency – anywhere
  • Facilitating creative partnerships across organizational/disciplinary boundaries
  • Developing games for learning (that is, no coding done by me)
  • Designing work/learning more along the lines of good games (yes, call it gamification if you must, just remember, that it’s not about creating extrinsic rewards for stupid tasks. On the contrary, it’s about creating intrinsic motivation for meaningful tasks.

We’re the stupid ones!

Most people working within education are probably familiar with the widespread notion, that during the recent decades, students have been growing less and less intelligent.

Students today, it is said, are simply dumber than they used to be.

To me, this is nothing but self-deception.

Using the “stupid students argument”, we keep reaffirming ourselves, that what we do is not the problem.

Students are.

We’ve been doing like this for years, so why should it suddenly be wrong? Isn’t it just a matter of trying harder? Of making students today understand, that they must align with our methods, our perspectives, our way of thinking?



Eactly because we’ve been doing like this for years and the world is not a static place.

However condescendingly obvious and self-evident this may seem, we haven’t really accepted it in education.

Yes, we have acknowledged, that there’s something called the internet and that computers may have a contribution to make.

But we’ve been obsessively trying to apply ICT as tools to reach the same goals in more or less the same ways.

What we need is a radical change.

If students appear to be stupid, it’s because we force them into a structure, which frames them as stupid. A framework, where they’re not recognised as the humans and students they are, but as the humans and students we would like them to be. This image, this persona, is, however, a retrospect. It’s a thing of the past.

We (as individuals, as schools, as entire educational system) should be self-reflective enough to look inwards when we encounter problems. We have the power to redesign education, to make it relevant, and we should be willing to accept, that the responsibility lies with us.

Why don’t we dare to do that? Why are we so eager to blame the students?

Students are not the stupid ones.

We are.

Credits: Nick Dewar

Can students save the world?

Due to my huge interest in “games as learning machines“, I’ve been actively pursuing the idea of “challenge based learning” for some time now. In short, good games build a framework for exactly that – challenge based learning. Players are tasked with numerous challenges, and they must learn what is required to overcome those challenges in order to play the game.

At the same time, education is all too often not about facing challenges and solving problems (as I lamented on recently) and we tend to forget the importance of doing things in a context. Rather, it’s about learning subject matter in relative isolation and with no immediate application.

“Why are we learning this? – Oh, because the central curriculum states its importance”.

Luckily, we’re currently seeing many movements arguing in favor of radical change. Education needs to find a more healthy and dynamic relationship with society, and one where students are allowed a role in shaping and improving the world around them. Why do we instinctively believe, that we have to be socialised through education for 10-15 years before we have any contributions to make? Why don’t we allow students to “make a dent in the universe”, as Steve Jobs famously described our reason for existing. Isn’t it in a way disrespectful to treat our young generations like this, stowing them away in classes where they can cause no harm? Couldn’t we make better use of students as valuable resources in our ongoing pursuit for a better world?

Are we really just afraid, that they can do better than us?

One ambitious and interesting project, initiated by The New Media Consortium in partnership with Apple Education, is appropriately titled “Challenge Based Learning” and intends to explore and promote the idea of linking learning to concrete real-world challenges:

Yes, the video is only showing a very polished image of the actual projects, yet I’m repeatedly impressed and touched by the kid in the end. It really says it all, and better than I possibly could.

A new report is out, where the project studies are described in more detail:

CBL makes learning relevant by giving kids problems big enough so that they have to learn new ideas and tools to solve them, but immediate enough so that they care deeply that solutions are found. Young people want to solve real problems, and that is exactly what challenge based learning is designed to do — give students and teachers a framework that makes learning relevant, and then let them dive in

In terms of clarification, my very good twitter companion, Michelle Hoyle, asked me about the difference between “problem based” and “challenge based” learning:

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To be honest, I don’t exactly know. Both are about solving challenging problems. Does problem based learning inherently focus on actually interacting with society?

Whatever the differences and similarities, it’s an important lead to follow.

Can students really save the world, then?

Maybe not, but we should definitely create more meaningful educations, which, in the very least, allow them to try.

Let’s fail more often!

Here’s a small excercise:

Repeat after me:

failure is good

To support this notion, I could fill this post with quotes from famous researchers, inventors & entrepreneurs, all arguing in favor of failure as a very natural, beneficial, even trivial component of life. I won’t do that, but staying in the realms of popculture, I’ll let J.K. Rowling have a say, quoting her beautiful, touching, deepfelt 2008 Harvard Commencement Address, “The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination”:

It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default

In education as well as society in general, we have succeeded in painting a much too bleak picture regarding the implications and meanings of failure. Our current infatuation with grades, exams, testing, assessing, measuring, quantifying, sadly only reinforces the fear of failure. We have this rigid, inappropriate system, where if you fail…you fail & it’s irreversible. Bad grades are potentially with you for a long time, just like a rap sheet.

Our educational systems not only maintain the black & white dichotomy between failure and success, they also seem to make students feel disempowered in their experiences with failure, as described by Ceri Jones:

These students don’t see themselves as in control of their success or failure. It’s the school’s fault

We want to promote a willingness to fail, but not failure without ownership. We should allow students ownership and autonomy over successes as well as failures.

As a consequence of the current attitude towards failure, people don’t want to fail. They’re afraid of failing. Fear of failing inevitably leads to a fear of trying. Fear of trying again leads to lack of initiative. People remain in their assigned cubicles (metaphorically as well as literally), performing the daily grind.

In Letting Kids Fail Leads to Innovation, Jon Dudas is making this pretty clear:

We need to let kids explore new ideas that support experimentation and failure in the path to learning and innovation. [...] We need new thinking, experiential learning and bold ideas to build a path to innovation and economic growth, and it starts with how we teach our kids. Let’s ask kids to try and fail without fear, to imagine the possibilities beyond the parameters within an assignment.  By investing in the innovative learning process with our students today, we are cultivating the problem-solvers of tomorrow

As is so often the case (when you’re looking for that sort of thing, at least), games can teach us to stop thinking about failure as some final, catastrophic disaster.

Jane McGonigal is talking about “fun failure” in her book “Reality is broken“, arguing that games teach us to consider failure in a new light:

Learning to stay urgently optimistic in the face of failure is an important emotional strength that we can learn in games and apply in our real lives

Another game designer, Margaret Robertson, has a beautiful account on how playing the painstakingly difficult Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls reminded her, that failure is not only acceptable, but desirable, a component improving the quality of life.

From my perspective, everything is pointing in one direction; we must all learn that failure is not something to fear, but something to embrace. Fear of failure should not stand in the way of initiative. Much can be changed in education, where we can definitely improve on our tolerace for failure, but it requires teachers to be much more willing to fail themselves.

What does it take? How do we challenge status quo, supporting students, teachers & people in general to fail more often?

Ban pencils!

Many of the arguments in this post are already aggregated in the very insigthful #pencilchat, so go there for more knowledge on the perils of pencils.

The Times They Are a-Changin, but not always for the better.

Pencils is the best contemporary example.

Some naive techno-optimists would have you believe, that they’re the only solution to the current so-called “crisis in education”.

This seemingly innocuous tool for writing is really a wolf in sheep’s clothings, and we need to reconsider our current fascination with this dangerous artefact.

But why would we want to deny ourselves the immense pleasures of pencils? Everybody knows that using a pencil is nice, and might even make certain tasks easier and more enjoyable?

Plato - PhaedrusFirst of all, pencils are the anti-thesis to proper intellectual development, as they undermine the need to remember and to develop ideas within oneself. This was  discovered by Plato thousands of years ago, and described with all desirable clarity in Phaedrus:

If men learn this, it will implant forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks. What you have discovered is a recipe not for memory, but for reminder. And it is no true wisdom that you offer your disciples, but only its semblance, for by telling them of many things without teaching them you will make them seem to know much, while for the most part they know nothing, and as men filled, not with wisdom, but with the conceit of wisdom, they will be a burden to their fellows

Is there really any credible, solid research proving the often-claimed link between pencils and student learning? How do we know, that pencils are worth the massive initial investment in infrastructure & supplementary training?

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As stated over on #pencilchat, an ever more outspoken problem lies in the lack of confined use patterns. Who could possibly predict, how students could go about using pencils?

For one thing, they would certainly be writing all kinds of silly notes, passing them around in class and thus removing focus from what’s important – the teacher. In continuation of this, cheating would without a doubt reach staggering heights. How can we properly and exactly measure, grade and categorise our students, if they manage to break our system by working together in devious ways?

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They might also figure out a way to adopt pencils for even more transgressional purposes, challenging existing social norms, or even distributing revolutionary thoughts and ideas. Entire societies could be overthrown by frantic students, all rallied around the power of the pencil. We need to avoid this and we need to retain control of what’s being written.

Most teachers are wary of pencils, and would rather not adopt this tool. Should we really force them to use something, which has no proven benefits and numerous potential undesirable consequences? Finally, pencils could eventually challenge the position of the teacher. If students could go about writing, doodling and drawing anything, they might even figure out a way to do so without the intervention of teachers.  This is obviously undesirable, because how would we control our students, what they learn, and – more importantly – what they do with what they learn?

I see no other solution than making a clear, nonambiguous statement for everybody to see:

Ban and burn all pencils.