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When Game-Based Learning Doesn't Work
by Sande Chen on 02/07/14 01:42:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


As the co-author of the book, Serious Games: Games That Educate, Train, and Inform, and a serious games consultant, I will happily point to the advantages of using serious games in the classroom and workplace.  Games are great at conveying systems and allowing exploration in a safe, virtual environment.  As has been shown in studies in the classroom, the use of deep (vs. drill and practice) games can make a remarkable difference in the learning outcomes of otherwise reluctant students.

However, there is one subset of students that may still need convincing:  Adults.

At the 2013 Games4Change Conference, Dr. Alicia Sanchez presented results of a study based on the use of games at the Defense Acquisition University.  Despite efforts, there were some adult students that felt the games were frivolous and especially disliked being seen playing a video game with a cartoony character.  Learning outcomes were better for these students when they avoided these lighthearted games entirely.

These results reoccurred when a serious game developer wanted to introduce a game to help would-be employees of the airline industry memorize airport codes.  Adults preferred to rely on their own tried and tested methods of memorization rather than muddle about with the new game.  The majority of the target audience did not even try the game.

What can we take away from these examples?  How can we reconcile these results with other studies that state that learning outcomes do significantly improve with the use of serious games? 

In both of the "fail" results, the adults didn't want to be seen playing an edutainment-like product, replete with childish helper characters and bright text.  These were also both situations where the adults' future jobs were on the line.  If one doesn't follow the right procedure in defense acquisition or doesn't know the right airport code, that person will not get the job.  Even if the game wasn't like edutainment, why risk job security?

When simulations are used in the workplace, adults clearly see the benefit.  Here's how you should land an airplane, conduct offshore drilling, fight a wildfire, run a roller coaster safely, etc.  These are deeper experiences in which adults can see a clear connection between serious game and job security.  As a target audience, adults may need a more "serious" visual presentation to take games as learning tools seriously.  To put it bluntly, adults need more convincing, especially in the workplace.

Furthermore, serious game developers should be striving for these deeper experiences in their games.  These are the types of games that slough off the shackles of edutainment and show why games are useful in the classroom and beyond the classroom:  in the workplace.

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Michael Wilson
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It's good to see educational gaming have an article on here, thanks so much for writing it! I agree with the challenge of trying to maintain that balance of fun without feeling immature. When developing our iOS game "Mind Wiz" we tried our best to make it something that can appeal to all ages. Right now the game is in the App Store, and we just launched a Kickstarter project to take it to the next level. I won't shamelessly plug the game right here, but we would love to get your opinion and support. :-) There seem to be very few "good" learning games out there and I'm still searching for a community in this genre (maybe I need to create one) Kickstarter link (if links are allowed in comments)

Sande Chen
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Thanks for your comment! Try looking at the serious game or serious play communities. Although serious games cover a broad spectrum, a lot of those developers are in the educational space.