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Why serious games work - an over-simplified view

I've just been working on a presentation for a client about what serious games are and how they work. It's been really fun.

One thing that I think confuses people, or perhaps overwhelms them, are the large number of ways in which games appear to support learning. For example, James Paul Gee lists no less than 36 learning principles. Donald Clark lists ten reasons for games in learning.

And, of course, these lists are all really useful. The trouble is, I rarely remember the whole lot when I'm talking to people about games. And when I do, after listing about five, my audience's eyes tend to start glazing over ("This all sounds too good to be true!").

So a couple of years ago I produced a very simple little model. It suggests that serious games are great for learning because:

  1. They provide motivation
  2. They offer varying degrees of simulation
  3. They tie experiences together through narration

I reckon you can gather together most characterstics of games under these three banners.

But of course, games are extraordinarily varied. There are many categorisations/ taxonomies of game types, and the degree to which each type employs the three characteristics in my model varies hugely.

For example, taking some of Clark Aldrich's categorisation of genres:

Here's what the balance of characteristics in a "frame game" - fun puzzles, card games etc. - might look like:

Here's a branching story:

And here's what Aldrich calls "practiceware" (generally heavyweight, high-fidelity simulation, often in 3D):

I know this is an over-simplification. But since I've been using it, I seem to be talking to fewer glazed-eyed audiences.

* * * *

Just briefly, by way of explanation, I'm putting The Difference Engine logo on some of my postings because I'm promoting a new network that I've set up. It's for learning professionals who want to design and produce creative learning experiences that actually work. If that sounds attractive, have a look.

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Reader Comments (5)

Over-simplified or not, I really like your model :) It offers a very succinct overview, and that's really important in trying to explain the concept to an audience, especially uber-traditional educators and non-gamers. I'm just beginning to study game development and how it relates to learning; I'll definitely keep this perspective in mind and reference it in the future. Thanks!
February 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDanielle Olson
Mindful over-simplification is different from wilful over-simplification :)

Two other things I might be tempted to add (perhaps due to a tendency to over-elaborate?):

1. Cognitive, hard-wired, brain-friendly. . .
Yep, I can't think of a way to put it. But there do seem to be a lot of people with authority indicating that play, at least, is 'how we learn'.

2. Pragmatism
It's counter-intuitive but games have evaluation and feedback baked in. Whereas, with the best will in the world, it's often bolted on in the other flavours of learning.

I suppose the next question is, "We are convinced that serious games can work - but in what specific instances are they effective and efficient?

As usual, great post. I'm a fairly recent visitor here but it's definitely in my top ten for L & D.
February 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSimon Bostock
Hi Patrick,

I just received a link to your blog from my Master's project supervisor- and what you have written does make a lot of KISS sense...

I of course mentioned Gee's 36 learning principles in my report but made the decision early that to include an unabridged list, even with a small description, was going to make my paper a review of Gee's book, not the investigation into serious games for adults that I had planned.

As I read through your post, I immediately through what a pity it was that I hadn't stumbled across your post before I hit "Submit" just yesterday, and sent my report off for marking... But, on the positive side, I can now add you to my list of worthwhile reads- thanks! :-)
March 1, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKim Gillham
Good post, i will share it
May 27, 2010 | Unregistered Commentert shirt competition
Games for older children usually include a larger number of smaller parts and more complex color patterns. They can promote brain development and can help children improve their ability to process information, analyze and solve problems.Puzzle games for children can be a real educational value. For example, younger children can play with the puzzle of the animals and learn about animals. There are puzzles that can also teach the alphabet and numbers.
November 24, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterangry birds

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