Serious(ly) good games?

Interested as I am in the application of games in education, I often remain relatively disappointed with most games developed specifically for education.

At the same time, I maintain a firm belief in the potential of games to help us facilitate better learning.

Why this dichotomy?

On one hand, I see clear patterns across research and experiences from practice, my own as well as those of others, all indicating that games are great learning tools.

On the other hand, there’s almost always a too wide discrepancy between good games in general on one side and even the best serious/learning games on the other.

No need to be polite here; most serious/educational games are just way too serious…and boring. Not that a good games must always be fun (though it doesn’t hurt), but good games (almost) always boast characteristics, which encourage or even compel the player to actually play the game. Many (if not most) educational games sadly don’t possess this pivotal quality. They simply don’t succeed in establishing the kind of fascination, engagement and hold on its players, as do the most successful commercial entertainment games.

Every gamer, hardcore as well as casual (to maintain these rapidly dying distinctions for just a wee bit longer), knows the feeling of not being able to quit a game. Just one more level/round/checkpoint/kill/boss, right? How frequently do you get this feeling when playing serious games? I know I very rarely do.

Raph KosterAt least in principle serious games should be good games just as much as so many entertainment games are good games. Now why is that not the case? First of all, it is important to maintain, that it has nothing to do with the fact that serious games want you to learn. All games share the premise that you learn in order to play, as argued by many game designers and researchers, most notably perhaps Raph Koster:

One of the subtlest releases of chemicals is at that moment of triumph when we learn something or master a task. This almost always causes us to break out into a smile. After all, it is important to the survival of the species that we learn – therefore our bodies reward us for it with moments of pleasure. […]Fun from games arises out of mastery. It arises out of comprehension. It is the act of solving puzzles that makes games fun. In other words, with games, learning is the drug

Where, then, is it that most learning games fail?

Many suggestions have been put forth, and I’ve stumbled upon many valuable sources of inspiration in this direction, among others the PhD-thesis’ by Simon Egenfeldt-Nielsen, “Beyond Edutainment“, and Jacob Habgood’s “The effective integration of digital games and learning content“. Habgood succintly states that “historically, educational titles have often used gaming elements as an entirely separate reward for completing learning content”. Simon elaborates on this in an article titled “What Makes A Good Learning Game? Going Beyond Edutainment“:

When you play a learning game you need to make sure that learning and play are integrated. This means that to succeed in the game you also need to master the learning goals behind the game

When “learning goals” and “play” are not well integrated, you feel no need to learn, as the games doesn’t provide a relevant context for learning. We don’t need to learn in order to do things, to solve problems, and that is when learning becomes tedious, boring, annoying – when we don’t see the purpose.

At this years Games 4 Change Festival, the legendary Gabe Newell, CEO at equally legendary game developer Valve, talked about the link between games and education:

Several extremely important arguments made by Newell in the above video. Newell’s talk is also covered in this very recommendable article, where he’s quoted for saying:

Games are becoming increasingly useful as educational tools. From our perspective, it’s one of the things we always think about — we always think about games as a learning experience. You can’t design a game without thinking about the progression of experiences and skills that a person is gonna have. The value that we have is that they’re self-directed

Newell also states there should be no gap in our perception of a good game and a good learning game:

There seems to be this distinction between games that are educational, and games that are going to be commercially successful. I’m not really sure I buy into that […] We can do this. We can make educational, commercially successful games, which are gonna help us both on the game side and on the educational side

Towards the end, he, rather provocatively, argues that developers of educational software are simply not ambitious enough:

It seems like a lot of the software that is developed is not very good. I hate the fact that a lot of people use the fact that they’re targeting the educational market as an excuse for not working as hard as people who are trying to build commercial software

I don’t know if this is true, yet I do feel, that most developers of educational applications operate with a level of ambitiousness regarding the games-as-games, so to speak, which is considerably lower than that of developers oriented towards the entertainment market. This may be due to lack of resources combined with less fierce competition in that particular market, but no matter the reason, the lower quality of games remains a barrier in many ways. For one thing, it is not uncommon for practitioners to lament the lack of “good learning games” and even apply this shortcoming as explanation for the limited use of games in education. Another issue caused by this widespread opinion is, that many game developers don’t even want to be associated with “learning games”, and most of the best developers would never move into this domain, causing a downward spiral of too few talented people ever supporting the a shift toward better learning games.

Newell concludes his tirade with a call to arms:

It seems like the people who make good games should be thinking harder about the educational capacity of what they do, and the people who are in the educational space should do everything they can to build better games than we do

Let’s take this last request very seriously. Let’s explore much more extensively the possibilities of breaking down the walls between those who work with just “games” and those who dare to delve into the realm of “serious games”.

It is clear, that Newell and Valve is in a relatively unique and privileged position to put forward these arguments. To be blunt, they’re so commercially successful and financially secured (as seen from a very distanced position), that they can probably do and say just about anything. Some would probably argue, that it is therefore impossible to mount his ideas on a global scale. Few developers have the same freedom and possibilities as Valve, sure, yet the basic logic in Newells statements remain quite interesting:

If you want to make games, regardless of which type of games, make sure to first and foremost build good games
After all, we see a slew of marvelous indiegames, which are developed by few people at modest budgets.

In an ideal world, could you imagine if game developers as part of, say, their CSR programme always thought about the educational/learning dimension just as Valve seems to do? What if every relevant game was accompagnied by authoring tools, alternative scenarios, mods or whatever makes sense regarding that particular game? What if we could in this way bridge the gap between those developing entertainment games and those developing educational games? And what if this could, in turn, make it not only legitimate, but perhaps even attractive, to make these games?

4 thoughts on “Serious(ly) good games?”

  1. Your critique is thoughtful and strikes to core of what we do and what we try to promote at our annual Festival. At the same time, we try to curate a selective list of some of the best examples of serious games, or in our viewpoint, "games for change", on our website. I invite you and your readers to check them out and hopefully it will show that there are many studios out there who make a serious effort to develop good games as well as good educational material:

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