Serious Games: Fad or Breakthrough?

Nov 06, 2015 1 Min Read

[First posted on on 6 November 2015]
[Updated with embedded podcast: 27 January 2016]

Are we ready to make the most of Serious Games?

The notion of using games in the education setting is attracting the attention of researchers, educators, and corporations alike. As such, the idea of serious games is appealing and everyone is eager to jump on board on what is perceived to be the next wave.

In my previous article, “Game-Based Learning: Too Good to be True?” three reasons were presented to highlight how serious games can be used as an effective learning tool.

Having said that, caution is needed in evaluating the effectiveness of specific serious games in the market.

Though some individuals or companies may make convincing and extraordinary statements to market their products to the public, the truth of the matter is that there is a lack of reliable research to validate many of the claims made by these parties.

As such, at this point in time, it is wiser to take such claims with a pinch of salt. So, here are four points you should take note of when evaluating the effectiveness of any serious games.

1. Substance trumps appearance

Although serious games are commonly referred to as digital forms of educational games, they are essentially games which are developed with the purpose to teach a particular subject area.

Therefore, serious games can be delivered in the form of a board game, card game, video game, or online game. The medium in which a game is presented does not matter as much as the content of the game itself, and what it enables the players to do.

Some researchers have pointed out that students’ learning performance might not be as good as expected if serious games are merely another way of presenting the learning materials.

2. No one superior form

Though serious games is generally classified as a genre of its own, a close examination of the types of serious games that were used in various studies indicated that it can appear in very different forms.

To name a few, it could be a puzzle game, simulation or even a role-playing game. To this date, there is minimal research available that compares the effectiveness of different forms of games to teach a particular topic or subject.

It is possible that certain forms are better for teaching certain subjects than others. Due to the wide variety of forms that a particular game can take to teach the same topic, it is still too early at this point in time to tell whether certain forms are more compatible than others, and further research is definitely needed to investigate deeper into this area.

3. Impressive graphics ≠ Enhanced learning

The impact of realism was examined in a meta-analysis and researchers found that schematic serious games (i.e. games with textual or otherwise very simple graphics with no cartoons) were more effective than cartoonlike or realistic games.

Therefore from the perspective of learning, there is no argument to invest in photorealistic visual designs because more basic designs such as schematic and cartoon-like designs were found to be equally or more effective in delivering its learning outcome.

Keeping this in mind, the results suggest that designers of serious games should direct their focus more on the learning content and less on visual designs.

4. Supplement, not replacement

Last but not least, it is important to bear in mind that it is not possible to use serious games as a sole means of delivering educational material.

In an experimental setting, researchers did not provide any lectures prior to allowing students to interact with a game, and expected the participants to learn a particular content solely from the game. However, research studies which were conducted in as naturalistic setting reported that most would use games to supplement what is taught in lectures.

Therefore, realistically speaking, serious games are more suitable to be used as a supplementary learning resource, and lectures are still mandatory for the main delivery of content, as it helps to clarify any misrepresentations which appeared in the game.

In another experiment, it was found that participants, who played the same game both on a computer and with traditional materials, produced no differences in their performance levels and reasoning strategies used.

Although the use of computers or the Internet possess a huge potential for enhancing the learner’s experience, the results revealed that video games that do not make much use of the features available in a computer is effective, because of the content of the game that the computer allows one to play, rather than the features of the computer itself.

Therefore, to improve students’ learning performance, researchers stressed the importance of providing proper learning support materials or instructional strategies in addition to integrating learning materials into computer games.

Caution against losing sight of the real goal

Considering the fact that a substantial amount of resources is required to develop one serious game, one should not simply waste resources on game features which do not significantly impact learning.

There is no point investing in poorly designed games as conventional methods would then be a more effective and less costly way of delivering learning materials.

Considering the high amount of resources required, it would thus be more worthwhile to invest on quality games that result in actual learning outcomes.

Another point to note is that when a good serious game does come along, it will be a waste if the game is only accessible to elites or selected students.

Amid the hype surrounding this topic, let us not forget that the ultimate objective of developing effective serious games is to ensure that all students, regardless of socioeconomic background, will be able to access such games and benefit from them.

Click play to listen to the corresponding podcast:

Adeline Tay completed her Masters in Education (Educational Psychology) at Sydney University, and is specialising in developing simulations at Leaderonomics. To find out more on the simulations that Leaderonomics has to offer, write to For more Brain Bulletin articles, click here

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Adeline is a former Senior Analyst in Leaderonomics Campus. She is a firm believer of experiential learning and specialises in designing and developing simulations.

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