July 20, 2018

How serious should we be about serious games in online learning?

An excerpt from the video game ‘Therapeutic Communication and Mental Health Assessment’ developed at Ryerson University

In the 2017 national survey of online learning in post-secondary education, and indeed in the Pockets of Innovation project, serious games were hardly mentioned as being used in Canadian universities or colleges. Yet there was evidence from the Chang School Talks in Toronto earlier this month that there is good reason to be taking serious games more seriously in online learning.

What are serious games?

The following definition from the Financial Times Lexicon is as good a definition as any:

Serious games are games designed for a purpose beyond pure entertainment. They use the motivation levers of game design – such as competition, curiosity, collaboration, individual challenge – and game media, including board games through physical representation or video games, through avatars and 3D immersion, to enhance the motivation of participants to engage in complex or boring tasks. Serious games are therefore used in a variety of professional situations such as education, training,  assessment, recruitment, knowledge management, innovation and scientific research. 

So serious games are not solely educational, nor necessarily online, but they can be both.

Why are serious games not used more in online learning?

Well, partly because some see serious games as an oxymoron. How can a game be serious? This may seem trivial, but many game designers fear that a focus on education risks killing the main element of a game, its fun. Similarly, many instructors fear that learning could easily be trivialised through games or that games can cover only a very limited part of what learning should be about – it can’t all be fun. 

Another more pragmatic reason is cost and quality. The best selling video games for instance cost millions of dollars to produce, on a scale similar to mainstream movies. What is the compelling business plan for educational games? And if games are produced cheaply, won’t the quality – in terms of production standards, narrative/plot, visuals, and learner engagement – suffer, thus making them unattractive for learners?

However, probably the main reason is that most educators simply do not know enough about serious games: what exists, how they can be used, nor how to design them. For this reason, the ChangSchoolTalks, organised each year by the School of Continuing Studies at Ryerson University, this year focused on serious games.

The conference

The conference, held on May 3rd in Toronto, consisted of nine key speakers who have had extensive experience with serious games, organised in three themes:

  • higher education
  • health care
  • corporate

The presentations were followed by a panel debate and question and answer session. The speakers were:

This proved to be an amazingly well-selected group of speakers on the topic. In one session run by Sylvester Arnab, he had the audience inventing a game within 30 seconds. Teams of two were given a range of  existing games or game concepts (such as Dictionary or Jeopardy) and a topic (such as international relations) and had up to two minutes to create an educational game. The winning team (in less than 30 seconds) required online students in political sciences to represent a country and suggest how they should respond to selected Tweets from Donald Trump.

I mentioned in an earlier blog that I suffered from such information overload from recent conferences that I had to go and lie down. It was at this conference where that happened! It has taken three weeks for me even to begin fully processing what I learned.

What did I learn?

Probably the most important thing is that there is a whole, vibrant world of serious games outside of education, and at the same time there are many possible and realistic applications for serious games in education, and particularly in online learning. So, yes, we should be taking serious games much more seriously in online learning – but we need to do it carefully and professionally.

The second lesson I learned is that excellent online serious games can be developed without spending ridiculous amounts of money (see some examples below). At the same time, there is a high degree of risk. There is no sure way of predicting in advance that a new game will be successful. Some low-cost simple games can work well; some expensively produced games can easily flop. This means careful testing and feedback during development.

For these and other reasons, research being conducted at Ryerson University and funded by eCampus Ontario is particularly important. Naza Djafarova and colleagues at Ryerson’s Chang School of Continuing Education are conducting research to develop a game design guide to enhance the process by which multidisciplinary teams, engaged in the pre-production stage, approach the design of a serious game. They have developed a process called the Art of Game Design methodology, for multidisciplinary teams involved in the design of serious games, and appraised in participatory workshops.

The Chang School has already developed a few prototype games, including:

  • Lake Devo, a virtual learning environment enabling online role-play activity in an educational context. Learners work synchronously, using visual, audio, and text elements to create avatars and interact in online role-play scenarios.
  • Skills Practice: A Home Visit that promotes the application of knowledge and skills related to establishing a therapeutic nurse-client relationship and completing a mental health assessment. Students assume the role of a community health nurse assigned to complete a home visit. Working with nurses and professors from George Brown College, Centennial College this project is working to establish a ‘virtual hospital’ with several serious games focused on maternity issues.

Thus serious games are a relatively high risk, high return activity for online learning. This requires building on best practices in games design, both within and outside education, sharing, and collaboration. However, as we move more and more towards skills development, experiential learning, and problem-solving, serious games will play an increasingly important role in online learning. Best to start now.