A Look at Serious Games

By Liam Morrow [07.22.10]

 Video games will change the way we learn. They are learning tools which teach us skills relevant to our everyday lives despite most games not being primarily designed for education. This is because games are a motivating and rewarding experience which makes learning more fun and pleasurable. Learning from video games occurs in a variety of ways.

Video games develop a wide range of skills vital to other areas of learning including multitasking and analytical thinking. This occurs especially in open-ended games such as SimCity where in order to succeed players must manage several channels of information while assessing past mistakes simultaneously (Dumbleton & Kirriemuir, 2006). Games being cultural texts are vital in learning about the world around us. When we play games we inhabit the lives of characters in completely different social groups and therefore experience ideologies and values different to our own.

By experiencing new cultures, games teach us to understand the world from new perspectives (Salen & Zimmerman, 2003). Video games also teach and encourage us to be creative and imaginative. They do this through end-user development techniques such as modding which allows the player to explore the game outside its original boundaries (Dare, 2004). Despite the immense potential of games as learning tools critics have claimed that skills learned in games cannot be transferred to real life. However studies have shown that this view is based on perception and games significantly improve the minds of players.

As the games industry learns to accept the teaching potential of games we will see developers supplement more educational content in their creations resulting in games becoming a recognised and respected learning tool. By providing both an engaging and enjoyable experience games are a learning tool which can teach us skills relevant in our everyday lives (Gee, Squire, Halverson, & Shaffer, 2004).

Games and Scientific Thinking

Games and game-like activities are vital to both children and adults for growth and development. Gameplay provides and promotes the development and formation of thinking as well as helping structure identities, values and norms of society. Games can be used as a tool where the player has the freedom to explore, create, manipulate and experiment with scenarios in a creative environment without boundaries. Because of this, games are a motivating and rewarding experience where the player consciously or subconsciously learns every time they play (Arnseth, 2006).

Through play, learning is embedded into video games which develop vital skills crucial to other areas of learning. Prensky describes this learning as occurring on five 'levels' which apply to a greater or lesser extent every time we pick up a controller. The most explicit level 'how' explains the process of how we learn to play games. When we play a new game we must learn the rules, physical manipulations (controls) and limitations.

Often this can only be accomplished through experimentation and exploration of the game mechanics as we learn the opportunities and restrictions the game presents us. These skills we learn transfer to non-game specific skills which we use in real life. StarCraft and other real-time strategy games involve interpreting many information sources at once such as controlling units, managing resources and planning combat. The skills developed in games which are necessary to succeed draws a parallel between multitasking in games and reality (Prensky, 2002).

Another level of learning 'What' involves learning the limitations of the game environment in order to develop strategies on how best to play the game. To succeed, players must experiment with tactics to determine what does and does not work often through trial and error (the thought process behind scientific thinking). SimCity is an example of a game which requires players to formulate and experiment with strategies in order to succeed. It is an open-ended game with no goals or objectives where players must manage resources build infrastructure and allocate funds in order to build the ultimate city.

As players build larger cities, more variables influence gameplay as players must manage factors including crime, traffic and taxes simultaneously. Players must experiment with these changing variables and predict the outcomes of their actions while analysing past mistakes in order to improve (Dumbleton & Kirriemuir, 2006). By developing skills such as multitasking and analytical thinking which can be used in other areas of learning, video games become a vital learning tool which helps in our everyday lives despite the fact that games such as SimCity and StarCraft were not primarily designed for educational purposes.

Culture and Games

Video games are cultural texts, representations of the context in which they were created and therefore reflect the ideologies of that culture. Game design comes from a relationship between games and larger contexts within which they exist. Games can enact a set of attitudes and beliefs while engaging in principals and behaviours of particular subcultures. As we play games, we are presented with simulated worlds which embody particular values and practices allowing us to inhabit worlds and roles which otherwise would have been inaccessible (Salen & Zimmerman, 2003).

As games allow us to inhabit the roles of characters that exist in completely different social groups, we are forced to think and interpret values from a culture different from our own. As these values may not align to our own we must therefore construe situations the game presents us in a completely different way than we would in the real world. Good video games have an influential way of making us deliberately aware of assumed cultural models and reflectively acknowledge how they diverge from our own. One way games do this is by presenting us with moral choices which can have adverse affects on how the game is played. As children experience these moral choices they learn to handle cultural relativity; that is dealing with different social groups and learn the values and ideologies of different cultures (Gee, 2003).

Grand Theft Auto (GTA) is a series of games which explores urban culture and reflects on the values and ideologies of the criminal underworld. One important element of this culture the game emulates is dominant ideologies and ideas of race towards the sanctioning of state violence. Key gameplay features illustrate the relationship between lower class communities and violence while demonstrating the absence of the state protecting and serving these social groups. Throughout the game players can slaughter rival gang members in the presence of police usually without consequence while harming the innocent brings police swiftly and with force.

The medical system too shows social bias. Injured citizens receive quick ambulance response and can be resurrected while paramedics ignore wounded 'gangsters' completely (Leonard, 2006). This representation of criminality and its response by the state allows us to explore urban culture and better understand this social group typically perceived to be outcasts by society. The game's political dialogue satires this mistreatment while also raising questions on whether this neglect worsens their situation. By examining GTA we see how games become a learning tool by allowing us to experience these new cultures, values and ideologies which are significantly different to our own. While GTA certainly is not primarily designed for education, it engages and influences our everyday lives as we gain an understanding of the world from a completely different perspective.

Imagination and Games

 Video games are a form of play. When we play games we become intensely and passionately involved with the content they offer. This is because video games are interactive and adaptive and constantly proves instant feedback in response to what we do. Because of this games allow us to experience what they offer in any way we desire, sparking our creative juices (Prensky, 2001). Civilisation is such a game which allows players to experience the fantasy of building and ruling an entire nation in any fashion they wish. Games being interactive in nature remove the clumsy limitations of regular toys by allowing us to experience these journeys whichever way we desire. As players have the freedom to play games however they wish games promote creativity and imagination (Dare, 2004).

End-user development (modding, map creation) promotes creativity as it encourages exploration outside the boundaries of the original game. Games often include tools which allow the player to modify the way the game is played (such as altering the affects of gravity) providing the opportunity to experiment with new modes of play. Imaginative players are reflectively aware of the games features and possible modifications to the way the game is played which leads to results often more exciting than the original game.

A 'total conversion mod' is a modification which replaces core aspects of the original game's gameplay and can even involve creating a new game in a completely different genre. Counter Strike is an example of a total conversion mod which allows hobbyists to generate their own content allowing them to engage in complete creative design as there are few restrictions on what can be created (Wright, Boria, & Breidenbach, 2002). Game developers have acknowledged the creative advantages of game modifications with many companies releasing tool kits which help make modifications to the game.

Garry's Mod is a physics-based game which allows players to build and manipulate props in any way they desire. As with SimCity the game is without objectives and goals and instead encourages players to explore the game as they wish. The game permits players to experiment with endless opportunities allowing them to creatively build content only bounded by their imagination. Garry's Mod has a large community where enthusiasts can share their creations with other people.

One such creation is the popular addon 'Wiremod'. Wiremod contains objects and components that increase functionality to existing contraptions and objects built within the game allowing players to create intuitive new things not possible before. Through end-user development games promote creativity as they encourage exploration outside the boundaries of the original game. By giving the user creative freedom to explore the game however they wish, games act as a learning tool to develop player's imagination skills despite education not being its primary design purpose.

Limitations of Games as a Learning Tool

While video games have immense potential as learning tools, they are often criticised for being too limited in their teaching ability as skills gained in the virtual world have no bearing in the real world. Currently views on games and their potential involvement in the learning process are skewed between great enthusiasm and equally deep scepticism.

It is argued that games are too simplistic as tasks are repetitive and poorly designed in the sense that activities are limited to isolated skills or content. Games teaching potential is limited to the complexity of the game as the number of variables which can be altered are limited to the game design while reality contains almost limitless outcomes. This suggests that video games can never be a replacement for real world learning as children may find it hard to re-contextualise what they learn in games (Arnseth, 2006).

Despite this stigma, experimental results suggest that playing video games does have a positive effect on children. Psychologists Ceci and Roazze asked a group of children to play a video game and performed tests to compare their problem solving skills in two different contexts. They discovered that context may be crucial because different contexts activate different knowledge structures in the mind. The experiment found that there was no significant difference in test results before and after they played the game in the context of a traditional exam (pen and paper).

However they were able to conclude that the children did significantly better if the exam was in a similar context to that of the game. This improvement of results provides strong evidence to suggest that video games have a positive effect on players. The study provided conclusive confirmation that skills learned in games can be applied in real world situations similar in context to those in games (Arnseth, 2006).

Another study in 2004 by the University of Rochester asked participants to count the number of squares which were flashed on a screen for a 20th of a second. The results showed that those who played video games were able to correctly identify the number of squares 13 percent more often than those who didn't play games. Professor James Paul Gee explained these results by claiming children who play games develop problems solving skills and are able to analyse things faster (Berman, 2005). While video games may be perceived to be limited in their applications for real-world learning, current findings provide strong evidence showing that games are a successful learning tool in teaching skills used in our everyday lives.

Games Changing the Industry

As the game industry begins to realise the power of video games as a learning tool we will begin to see games supplemented with content of educational significance. School teacher Dr Patricia Edgar has already recognised this connection to the industry claiming there is growing evidence to support that games are effective and valuable learning tools. A wide range of skills are absorbed from games including comprehension, decision making, multitasking, collaboration, concentration, leadership and communication.

While games have shown great potential as a learning tool, a major factor in stopping the advancement of games in education is parents who fear the impact on games on their children because many "fear the unknown" or have concerns about the effect of violence (Hill, 2009). The question the game industry needs to ask is how we can use this incredible engagement of games and learning to help children learn what society wants them to know. If the industry is able to further incorporate educational significance into games while still ensuring that they remain enjoyable, video games will "become the greatest learning tool we have ever known" (Prensky, 2002).

Video games are learning tools which teach us vital skills useful in our everyday lives despite most not being designed for educational purposes. Games teach us in a variety of ways, the first being on an analytical level. Open-ended games such as SimCity teach the thought process behind scientific thinking through its analyse-test-analyse gameplay. Games such as GTA teach us about culture and values by placing us in the role of a character in a different social group. Through this we learn to see the world from an entirely different perspective.

Modding and other end-user development strategies teach players to be creative and imaginative by encouraging them to explore the game outside its original boundaries. While games show immense learning potential critics claim that playing games will not teach skills relevant to real life. Despite this, experiments conclude that video games have a significantly positive effect on children for teaching skills outside video games.

As the game industry acknowledges the teaching potential of games we will see games supplemented with educational content. By combining educational and engaging content, video games are excellent learning tools which teach us skills we use every day.


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