“Serious Games” for e-learning

I’ve been reading lot’s recently about “serious games” for e-learning and to date I haven’t read anyone who has hit the mark on what makes games work and how games would be applied to e-learning.

So far people seem overly hooked on big, immersive, high-end graphic based games such as Tomb Raider, and for those of you who have seen the latest incarnation of Tomb Raider you know that this means a fairly powerful graphics system to display, tons of development time from a huge staff, and bags of cash. Quite rightly these people identify the fact that this just wouldn’t work in e-learning.

Yet they’re missing the point. The gaming doesn’t need to be this kind of first person based game. In fact some incredibly popular games for the new XBox 360 platform are based on games that they were around with the first few generations of computers.

So why are these commentators stuck on such high-end solutions? Perhaps it’s the money they can make in developing them?


I’ve read a few articles from people both on the Internet and in print that say these immersive, 3D, high-end graphic, first person games are the way to go, but by that very definition they kill their own argument. They are too expensive to develop for a single organisation to use.

In an article I read today in Inside Learning Technologies, Vaughn Waller talks about this and highlights this cost and development restriction. Very insightfully he points out that where such an open ended or multi choice gaming environment works so well in the world of videogames, it doesn’t in the organisation. Would a company pay for training where 40% (for example) of the training will not be utilised? Not likely, and the whole article raises some good points. This kind of gaming just wouldn’t create cost effective learning.

However, there would be ways to do it. In the gaming world the re-use of game engines is common. Simply “renting” an exisiting and proven game engine would reduce costs massively, requiring only the environments and characters to be created – these are relatively easy and quick to create in comparision.

There’s something that isn’t so easy to capture though, the reason that makes games so addictive, a quality that proves quite elusive even within the videogame industry itself. Taking a game engine and throwing in a working environment with business characters would be just a small part of the task, there’s vast pieces of the puzzle missing. Achievements, problem solving, etc, etc.

It’s interesting that with the XBox 360 comes a system called Live Arcade. This allows gamers access to some very simplistic games, they aren’t first person based games, they are games like Texas Hold ’em poker, or a game where you match multi-coloured hexagonals together and then they disappear allowing more hexagons to fall in from the top, or Geometry Wars (a game I am not going to attempt to describe) which is all simple wire frame and coloured blobs and is identical to a game developed over fifteen years ago for very old computers.

What’s surprising is that these games are being played on one of the highest end user gaming systems currently available, and not played by one or two people, these games are proving incredibly popular, and it’s for the reasons listed above – Achievements, levelling, problem solving, and what I think are the two magical properties, worldwide league tables and multi-player gaming.

The challenge of competing against others is very alluring, but the power of these simple games shouldn’t be overlooked. These games are just as challenging and effective, and they don’t have the high end graphics and vast environments of something like Tomb Raider or Ghost Recon. Just look at the number of gamers playing XBox Live Arcade online, they think so. So we don’t have to go all out to achieve games in learning, we need to isolate the elements that make gaming addictive and enjoyable and transfer these into the core of e-based learning.

One last example that springs to mind is Sonic the Hedgehog. The simple arcade version from years ago was hugely successful. Today there’s a new first person 3D version available on the XBox 360, and is it proving as popular? Far from it, it’s rubbish in comparison, yet it has wonderful graphics, a vast array of movement and choice, surely it must trample all over it’s side scrolling 2D predecessor? Not at all. I played it for a few minutes and deleted it. There’s a fantastic simplicity in the original.

2 comments on ““Serious Games” for e-learning”

  1. Dave Morrow Reply

    Interesting article Rich. I’d never thought of games for learning within organizations. It reminds me of those ‘buiness meetings at 2pm inside World of Warcraft’ stories..

    In terms of learning Carole wanted me to buy Brain Training on the DS. I didn’t fancy it (timed aritmetic and problem solving seemed too much like hard work) but it is fun, enjoyable and beneficial (I presume). We both do our daily 15 mins mental exercises on it! Still rather shoot stuff though 😉

  2. Richard Reply

    Oh yeah, I remember those sessions! Although it’s not the kind of learning we’re talking about here it is still learning none the less!

    I’ve seen that Brain Training advertised – is that the one that makes you lose your wife? Low blow! That is the other end of the scale of the idea of immersive games, there’s still a happy medium to be had, and it doesn’t need to be 3D.

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