Serious games are games whose main objective is NOT fun or entertainment, but learning or practicing a skill.
Their use has grown, particularly in sectors such as education, defense, aeronautics, science or health. Its purpose can be one of many: from training firefighters in emergency situations to forming a sales team, teaching math or practicing a language.
What is game-based learning?
The method used by video games for learning purposes is known as game based learning. The key lies in the fact that the content and skills you want to teach are not transmitted in a classroom or in a book, but through video games. Supporters of this innovative teaching method think that video games can be a fun and effective tool at the same time, reducing the costs of training courses, increasing student motivation and simplifying direct practice. The star products of gaming-based learning are the serious games.
The healthcare sector has enthusiastically welcomed this innovative teaching method. Nursing expert Claudia Johnston relied on first-person filming of video games (such as Quake or Duke to develop Pulse, which reproduces the conditions of a hospital emergency room).
Thanks to this video game, future nurses will be able to practice what they learned in their theoretical lessons and gain experience in handling real situations. The aim of the players is to identify the problem of each patient, giving priority to the most critical cases and applying appropriate actions depending on the condition of each individual.
The 5 components of a Serious Game
Creating a Serious Game is not an easy task: it requires a lot of talent, a lot of time and a lot of money. Although there are a variety of formats and objectives, most gaming-based learning systems tend to have five features that ensure they work properly and are effective:
1.- The story
Although not essential, most video games have a main story or plot. It can be a prince risking life and limb to rescue a princess or a brave soldier who has to make his enemy pay. Or, as we’ve seen, it can also be a nurse who has to save a patient’s life. The more sophisticated the argument, the easier it will be to motivate players and get them into the game.
The second fundamental element of any Serious Game is the gameplay dynamics, which includes rankings, rewards, badges or point systems.
This gamification tends to encourage and motivate players: we all love getting more coins, getting more lives or moving to the next level.
Rankings are also very important in Serious Games: healthy competition with our classmates or co-workers encourages us to try a little harder and do everything we can to beat our rivals.
3.- Immediate and individualized feedback
Unlike face-to-face classes (usually with dozens of people in the classroom and a single teacher), Serious Games offer immediate, personalized feedback.
The player interacts directly with the game and instantly receives a reward or a punishment. In more sophisticated video games, this feedback is also detailed and argued: users can know what they’ve been wrong about and can try to do better next time. If given properly, this feedback can be a powerful learning tool.
In most cases, Serious Games recreate or mimic real-life situations. Using fictional characters and recreating scenarios, players find themselves immersed in a world similar to the one they will find beyond their computer screen or mobile phone.
These simulators allow users to interact with a new reality and practice the skills and concepts they have acquired during the game.
5.- The objective
We won’t get tired of saying it: the key element of Serious Games is that their purpose is to teach something. All the elements we’ve mentioned before can be found in countless commercial video games, but that doesn’t necessarily make them Serious Games.
In addition to using all these elements, serious games also need to have a non-recreational purpose that almost always has to do with some aspect of education or training.
Many of these elements can be seen in the famous language application, Duolingo. While users learn English, Spanish, French or German, they receive points, move to the next level, lose lives or overcome their friends and relatives.
Every lesson they learn has its reward. Although Duolingo is not strictly a serious game, it is one of the most successful applications when it comes to using gamification elements for learning.
What are the advantages of game based learning and Serious Games?
When all of the above elements are successfully combined, we have a powerful learning tool. The use of narrative, game techniques, simulators and feedback during the teaching process have numerous benefits compared to face-to-face learning or e-learning. These are the top five advantages:
1 - Increase commitment and motivation
We have all suffered some of the negative aspects of traditional education: long hours of sitting listening to a teacher, endless theories exposed in a book and almost no interaction with the content. Whether we are talking about teenagers in a school or workers in a company, the lack of motivation and commitment of students is one of the main concerns of teachers and human resources managers.
Serious Games and game based learning are two of the best solutions to this problem. Video games are necessarily interactive and users have to make decisions from the beginning. The game dynamics encourage effort and the narrative in which students are involved serves to motivate them. More sophisticated video games can even turn learning into an addiction. As they explain in The Gamification of Learning and Instruction Fieldbook, “The more the student interacts with other students, the content, and the instructor, the more likely it is that learning will actually occur”.
2 - Allow for deep contemplation
Very often, particularly in the labour world, we work in a monotonous and repetitive environment where we prioritise the most urgent tasks from one day to the next. This makes long-term strategic planning difficult and prevents us from reflecting deeply on the challenges and opportunities we face. Serious Games, thanks to how they can immerse us in other worlds and take us away from reality, can provide the distance we need to encourage in-depth contemplation and thought.
3.- Facilitate real and safe practice
Unlike face-to-face training, game based learning is a way of learning based on practice. Thanks to simulators, players can interact with other characters and use the knowledge acquired from the beginning.
Serious Games also offer the best of both worlds: on the one hand, simulators must replicate reality as faithfully as possible; on the other, the fact that it’s a video game allows users to practice safely without the risk of personal injury or material damage. This is particularly important if we are talking about surgery or flying an airplane.
4 - Improve memory and retention
One of the advantages of Serious Games is that, by increasing the commitment and motivation of students, they also increase their memory and retention of what they have learned. Added to this real and direct practice, the result is that students learn better and more deeply. Several scientific studies have shown that learning by practice has a more effective and lasting impact on students’ brains.
5 - Make the world a better place
That may sound too ambitious, but the fact is that several Serious Games have also been so daring as to try to change the world.
The fact that we like gambling and simulators can be a good tool to encourage empathy, promote peace, defend people’s rights or spread civic values. Unlike the stereotype by which video games are a cause of antisocial or violent behaviour.
The success of Serious Games and gaming-based learning
All of these benefits have placed game-based learning on the cutting edge of the educational revolution that the world of corporate teaching and training is experiencing today. Many of these more or less sophisticated video games are used daily by millions of people (in many cases, without them noticing). For example, in the UK, the majority of players (33%) prefer video games to puzzles, word games or trivial activities.
Although not all of them can be considered Serious Games, it is a good indicator of the growing acceptance of gaming-based learning around the world.
The reasons why gaming-based learning is so popular are increasingly well known: as we’ve seen, they improve student engagement and motivation, allow direct practice without risk, and simplify memorization and knowledge retention. While Serious Games have existed for centuries (let’s not forget that since we were kids we’ve all been learning while playing), the social and technological changes of recent years are extending game-based learning to the four corners of the planet. Whether it’s to improve nurse training, to help primary school children learn geometry, or to promote leadership skills among company employees, serious games have become one of the most practical and effective teaching tools in today’s world.