Game-Based Learning

Why Serious Games Are Not Chocolate-Covered Broccoli

February 19, 2014

All well designed games begin with a spirit of fun. Some games must deliver a serious and purposeful message, too. An example is Nightmare: Malaria, an iPad game with a similar mechanic as the popular side-scroller Limbo. The difference here is its message: malaria is dangerous and kills, especially in developing nations. Actress Susan Sarandon voices the beginning cut scene, and the action takes place within a sick young girl's blood vessels and brain. The mission is to save teddy bears while avoiding mosquitoes. It's dark and chilling, yet still engaging to play -- no easy feat! When you die, a message about malaria pops up, along with a plea for donating mosquito nets. To preview the game, download for free, or donate a net, go to Escape the Nightmare.

Nightmare: Malaria is part of a growing sector of what are called Serious Games. Unlike simple interactives, games have immediate feedback and require the player to accept rules on limited actions. Serious Gaming is used to teach and train K-12 students or as professional development. In fact, today's millennials should expect job training to be gamified. One of the "best-selling" free Serious Games is America's Army, used for recruiting. Businesses use games like Everest Manager to teach team building within organizations. Some Serious Games are commissioned by corporations. Others, like Nightmare: Malaria, are created pro bono to raise awareness and possibly garner acclaim.

Serious Gaming

There are many outlets for reviewing research and development in the Serious Games sector. The MIT Education Arcade has a long history of innovation. One of its titles, The Radix Endeavor, is a massive multiplayer online (MMO) game to teach STEM, made in collaboration with Filament Games. The idea is that when a student masters the game, skills and knowledge are also mastered. The Serious Games Association aggregates and curates titles for K-12, higher education, business, health care and government institutions. Its portal is especially useful for teachers -- there are Serious Games for almost every discipline. Teaching about dystopian society? Check out Papers Please, a border agent role-playing game. Teaching civics? Try the games on iCivics or Government in Action. For more, check out the Serious Games Directory or attend the Serious Play Conference. Also worth visiting is the Serious Games Society, based in Europe. You can even sign up for the Serious Games Academy (I did!).

Games for Change

Games for Change (G4C) is perhaps the best known Serious Games organization. G4C promotes thought-provoking and impactful games. Each year, it hosts a festival and awards ceremony. This year's festival will be April 22-26 in New York City, and will join forces with the Tribeca Film Festival. G4C games are effective because they encourage clever design. G4C offers a listing of games to play and integrate into the classroom.

Games for Health

Games for Health (GFH) explores "the intersection of video games and health." For fun and health, check out the mobile app Zombies Run. Boasting a community of over 500,000, this running game puts players on missions collecting items and outrunning hordes of zombies -- all while actually running! SuperBetter is another example of how gaming can get people to feel better. Jane McGonigal (author of Realty Is Broken) founded the site after she recovered from a concussive injury. This year's annual G4H Conference will be held in Boston, June 18-20.

Games and Impact

The Center for Games and Impact was founded by at the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at Arizona State University by Sasha Barab and James Paul Gee in partnership with E-Line Media co-founders Alan Gershenfeld and Michael Angst. According to the website, the goal of the project is to provide "players, parents and teachers the tools to understand play, inspire reflection and stimulate transformation with the goal of building a more knowledgeable, responsible and empathetic citizenship." For more information, check out the Impact Guides. Teachers can even earn a certificate in Games and Impact.

Avoiding Chocolate-Covered Broccoli

Games that blur the line between fun and education can all too frequently fall into the trap of becoming "edutainment," thinly disguised educational software or "chocolate-covered broccoli." A coating of sweet does not make the learning suddenly fun. While no one expects a learning game to be on par with a blockbuster AAA title, like Battlefield 4, there should be no excuse for poor design. When reviewing Serious Game titles, look for ones that involve game mechanics common in entertainment games, like decision making, problem solving and role playing.

An engaging way to alleviate chocolate-covered broccoli concerns is to bring the class into the mix by asking students to playtest. After all, Serious Games are not replacements for the teacher. The teacher should facilitate the game-based activity and then lead a class discussion on both the content and the overall experience. And remember, just because it's serious doesn't mean that it shouldn't be fun!

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