EntertainmentGamesEverything you need to know about serious games and...

Everything you need to know about serious games and game-based learning, explained with examples


The combination of words like “serious” and “game” seems impossible, but it is not. In recent years, serious games have shown that it is possible to learn by playing. This teaching method is known as game-based learning, a trend that is expanding at full speed in primary schools, prestigious universities and large companies.

In this post we are going to explain everything you need to know about serious games and learning through video games, including their main characteristics, their benefits and the most outstanding examples.

What is a serious game?

Serious games are those whose primary purpose is NOT for fun or entertainment, but for learning or practicing skills. Its use has grown especially in sectors such as education, defense, aeronautics, science or health. Its purpose can be very varied: from training fire teams in emergency situations to training a sales team, teaching mathematics or practicing languages.

First Example: Dragon Box Elements

In the educational field, one of the simplest (and most effective) games is Dragon Box Elements. In it, players have to build an army, defeat the evil dragon Osgard and save the island of Euclid. Designed for children from nine years old, to achieve all this the little ones will have to learn the basics of geometry and the theorems of Euclid himself. Dragon Box is a good example of a serious game: students learn math lessons while having fun with a video game.

What is game-based learning?

The method that uses video games for learning is what is known as game-based learning . The key is that the contents and skills that want to be taught are not presented in a face-to-face class or in a book, but through video games. The defenders of this innovative teaching method believe that video games can be a fun and effective tool at the same time, reducing the costs of training programs, increasing student motivation and facilitating direct practice. The flagship product of game-based learning is precisely the serious games .

Second Example: Press!!

The medical sector is one of those that has most enthusiastically embraced this innovative teaching method. Nursing expert Claudia Johnston drew on first-person shooter video games (a la Quake or Duke) to develop Pulse!!, which reproduces the conditions of a hospital emergency room. Thanks to this video game, future nurses can practice everything they have learned in theoretical classes and gain experience by facing real situations. The objective of the players is to identify the problems of each patient, prioritize the most serious and apply the appropriate measures depending on the state of each one of them.

The 5 elements of a serious games

Making a serious game is not an easy task: it takes a lot of talent, a lot of time and a lot of money. Although there is a huge variety of formats and objectives, most game-based learning systems usually have five elements that ensure their proper functioning and effectiveness:

1 – A story. Although it is not essential, most video games usually have a plot or a main story. It can be a prince who wants to rescue a princess or a brave soldier who tries to kill his enemy. It can also be, as we saw above, a nurse who needs to save a patient. The more sophisticated the plot (and the characters), the easier the immersion of the players will be and the greater their motivation.

Third Example: Pacific

The Pacific video game begins precisely with a story: a team going on a humanitarian mission has a plane crash and is trapped on an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The objective of the player will be to lead his team in the construction of a hot air balloon that will allow them to escape from the island and return to their homes safely. To do this, it is necessary to learn all the virtues of a good leader and team manager (skills in high demand by all companies), including motivating and rewarding colleagues, resolving conflicts, delegating tasks or coaching. Only then can they escape the island.

2 – Gamification. The second fundamental element of any serious game is the game dynamics, which include rankings, rewards, badges or point systems. This gamification (or gamification) usually encourages and motivates players: we all like to get more coins, get more lives or go to the next level (think Mario Bros). Classifications or rankings are also very important in serious games : healthy competition with our classmates or coworkers encourage us to try harder and do everything possible to beat our rivals.

Fourth Example: Duolingo

Many of these elements can be seen in the famous language application Duolingo. At the same time that users learn English, Spanish, French or German, they are receiving points, leveling up, losing lives or surpassing their family and friends. Every lesson learned has a reward. Although Duolingo is not strictly speaking a serious game , it is one of the most successful applications when it comes to using gamification elements for learning.

3 – Immediate and individualized feedback. Unlike face-to-face courses (usually with dozens of people in the classroom and a single teacher), serious games offer immediate and personalized feedback. The player directly interacts with the game and is instantly rewarded or punished. In the most sophisticated video games, this feedback is also detailed and argued: users can know why they made a mistake and try to do better the second time. Well crafted, this feedback can be a powerful learning tool.

4 – Simulation. In most cases, serious games reproduce or imitate real life situations. Through fictional characters and the recreation of environments, the player is immersed in a world similar to the one he will find beyond the screen of his computer or mobile phone. These simulators are what allow users to interact with this new reality and practice the skills and concepts acquired during the game.

Quinto Ejemplo: The Virtual Interactive Combat Environment (VICE)

Simulators have been used with great success for the training of surgeons, airplane pilots, or military personnel. In this last field, the most outstanding institution is undoubtedly the Department of Defense of the United States, probably the public entity that has dedicated the most money and resources in recent decades to game-based learning. One of its best-known video games is The Virtual Interactive Combat Environment (VICE), which through a sophisticated 3D simulator allows army personnel to practice conflict resolution, use regulatory equipment, communicate with the rest of the team or act in war scenes.

5 – The goal: learn. We will not get tired of repeating it: the key element of serious games is that their purpose is to teach something. All of the above elements can be found in countless commercial video games, but that doesn’t necessarily make them serious games . In addition to using all of the above elements, serious games must also have a non-recreational purpose, which will almost always be related to educational or training aspects.

What are the advantages of game-based learning and serious games ?

When all of the above elements are successfully combined, you have a powerful learning tool. The use of a narrative, gamification techniques, simulators and feedback in the teaching process bring numerous benefits compared to face-to-face learning or e-learning. These are the five most prominent:

1 – Increase engagement and motivation

We have all suffered some of the negative aspects of traditional education: long hours sitting listening to a teacher, endless theories expounded in a book and practically no interaction with the content. Whether among the adolescents of a high school or among the workers of a company, the lack of motivation and engagement of the students is one of the biggest concerns of teachers and human resources managers.

Serious games and game-based learning are one 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 they are involved serves to motivate students. The most sophisticated video games can even turn learning into an addiction. And, as they explain in The Gamification of Learning and Instruction Fieldbook, “the more the student interacts with other students, with the content, and with the instructor, the more likely learning is to occur.”

Sixth Example: Our City

Millennials (both at school and at work) are one of the sectors in which it can be more difficult to get engagement. To solve this, in Jordan they have developed a video game for Facebook called “Our City”, which seeks to involve people between the ages of 15 and 24 in their local communities, promote civic behavior among young people and invite them to participate in the life of the city. . The game, which bears similarities to the popular The Sims, turns youngsters into mayors and allows them to build the city from scratch while keeping the city’s inhabitants happy. Some of its challenges will be to develop basic public services (such as health or education) and improve the city’s transport.

2 – They facilitate deep reflection

Often, especially in the workplace, we work in a routine and repetitive environment in which we prioritize the most urgent tasks of the day. This makes long-term strategic planning difficult for us and prevents us from thinking deeply about the challenges and opportunities we face. Serious games , thanks to their ability to immerse us in other worlds and abstract us from reality, can become the exact distance we need to encourage reflection and deep thought.

3 – They allow real and safe practice

Unlike face-to-face training, game -based learning is characterized by being practice-based learning. Thanks to the simulators, players can interact with other characters and use the knowledge gained from the beginning. Serious games also offer the best of both worlds: on the one hand, simulators must reproduce reality as faithfully as possible; on the other, the fact that it is a video game allows you to practice safely without causing personal or material damage. This is especially important if we are talking about operating in an operating room or flying an airplane.

Seventh Example: Shipowners

Real and direct practice is also vital in the field of the company. This is the case with the Navieros video game (part of the Gamelearn platform), which trains the employees of any company in negotiation and conflict resolution. In Navieros, players travel to Venice at the end of the 15th century to try to build a trading empire and face tough bargainers like Machiavelli. This video game allows the employees of a multinational company to face difficult negotiations that they can later apply in real life, but without their company having to pay for the typical mistakes of any learning process.

4 – They improve memorization and retention

One of the advantages of serious games is that, by increasing the engagement and motivation of the students, the memorization and retention of what has been learned also increases. If this is coupled with real and direct practice, the result is that students learn better and more deeply. Various scientific studies show that learning by playing and practicing ( learn by doing ) causes more lasting effects in the brain of students.

5 – They make the world a better place

It may sound too ambitious, but the truth is that several serious games have also dared to try to change the world. The attraction that gamification and simulators arouse in us can be a good tool to foster empathy, promote peace, defend people’s rights or spread civic values. Contrary to the stereotype that video games cause anti-social or violent behaviour, the reality is that game-based learning can foster pro-social and positive attitudes for society as a whole.

Eighth Example: Food Force

The United Nations World Food Program developed a video game in 2005 to promote social awareness and the fight against hunger. In this video game (Food Force) players take on the role of a newcomer to the UN who has to deal with a crisis of famine and civil war on a Pacific island. The objective of the player is to distribute food among the population and help the country to be self-sufficient in the medium-long term. A fantastic example of how serious games can make the world a better place.

The success of serious games and game-based learning

All these benefits have placed game-based learning at the forefront of the educational revolution that the world of corporate education and training is experiencing. Many of these more or less sophisticated video games are used daily by millions of people (in many cases, almost without realizing it). In the UK, for example, the majority of gamers (33%) prefer puzzle, word or trivia video games. Although not all of them can be considered serious games, it is a good example of the growing acceptance of game-based learning around the world.

Furthermore, serious games are also a very serious business. According to estimates by the consulting firm Marketandmarkets, this sector will grow between 2015 and 2020 at an annual average of 16.38%, which will place the business in the last year at 5,449 million dollars. There is a growing demand for learning through video games and little by little the market is supplying it.

The reasons for the popularity of game-based learning are increasingly well known: as we have seen, they improve student engagement and motivation, allow direct and risk-free practice, and facilitate knowledge memorization and retention. Although serious games have existed for centuries (let’s not forget that we all learn by playing from a young age), the technological and social changes of recent years are going to spread game-based learning throughout the planet . Whether it is to improve the training of nurses, to facilitate the learning of geometry among primary school students or to foster the leadership skills of company employees, serious gamesThey have already become one of the most practical and effective teaching tools.

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