Serious Games

Clark Quinn has developed instructional games for decades. Here’s his take on the situation today.

Serious Games (or, to be Politically Correct™, Immersive Learning Simulations) have hit the corporate learning mainstream, so you should be asking yourself: “why are people excited?” Quite simply, because games (I’m not PC™) are probably the most pragmatically effective learning practice you can get. Sure, mentored real performance is the ideal, but there are two potential hiccups: scaling individual mentors has proven to be unrealistically expensive, and mistakes in live practice often are expensive, dangerous, or both. Why do you think we have flight simulators?

For principled reasons, the best learning practice is contextualized, motivating, and challenging. Interestingly, so are the most engaging experiences. It turns out that the elements that cause effective educational practice line up perfectly with those that create engaging experiences. Thus, we can safely say that learning should be ‘hard fun’.

Then the issue becomes if we can do this reliably, repeatably, and on a cost-effective basis. It turns out that the answer to this question is also in the affirmative. While you can’t just shove gamers and educators in a room and expect the result to work (all the bad examples that led to ‘edutainment’ becoming a bad word are evidence), if they understand the alignment above, systematically follow a creative process (no, systematic creativity is not an oxymoron; why do we have brainstorming processes?), and are willing to take time to ‘tune’ the result, we can do this reliably.

The question is really: when to use games. The answer for engine-driven (read: programmed, variable) games is when we have a need for deep practice: when there are complex relationships to explore, or making the change will be really hard. Branching scenarios are useful when we want to experience some contextualized practice but we don’t need a lot of it. And the principles suggest that at minimum, we should write better multiple-choice questions that put learners into contexts where they must make decisions where they’re applying the knowledge, not just reciting it.

And, yes, we can spend millions of dollars (I can help), but for many needs we may not need to. While there isn’t any one tool that lets us do this, there are a number of cost-effective ways to develop and deliver on the resulting design. As I say “if you get the design right, there are lots of ways to implement it; if you don’t get the design right, it doesn’t matter how you implement it”.