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Is learning an essential part of good games?

I recently read an interview with Sid Meiers, the creator of the popular Civilization video game series, where he said that “learning is part of any good video game”. This interview is a fascinating read for anyone interested in games-based learning, gamification and Games with Purpose, but it got me thinking about how much truth there is in this. Do we really need to learn anything to enjoy a game, or is the learning element an integral part of the experience?

Since working with Preloaded and our own Games with Purpose division, LEO Learning Preloaded, it has radically changed the way I think about games. When people like me play Bejeweled Blitz (an object-matching game similar to Candy Crush), they’re not learning anything about the gemstones they’re matching. But as I have discovered from working with the Preloaded team, what a game is ‘about’ doesn’t necessarily have to match what you can learn. As time has progressed, I’m no more an expert in diamonds now than I was when I started playing, but my speed in matching gems has improved, I’m scoring more points and I’m ranking higher and higher on the leaderboard. But why?

young boys play video gamesThe game mechanics are helping players develop their strategic skills, helping them spot patterns, think faster, plan ahead and make decisions quicker, evident in the extra points and increasingly improved positions in the leaderboard. If this can be achieved by a quick mobile game, imagine what can be done with a game specifically created to train or educate its players. For instance, Preloaded’s Footfall is ‘about’ running a shoe shop – selecting the right stock, selling enough shoes and getting the right media coverage. But its aim is to teach teenagers financial literacy. The point of the game isn’t to find out the difference between kitten heels and platform boots, but to learn how to run a business and manage finances.

But do games necessarily need to teach us anything to be good? Let’s take two traditional board games as an example – Snakes & Ladders and chess. In Snakes & Ladders, there are no skills for players to improve, and so the winner will never be determined by anything other than luck. However, in chess, many players practise for many years in order to improve their strategy, learning tactics and developing their ability to plan ahead and anticipate certain moves in order to beat their opponents. Players have the opportunity to improve their chance of winning, giving them the motivation to continue practising over time. While playing luck-based games for one or two rounds may be fun, there is no real challenge or reason to continue playing, while the ability to learn and improve your chess skills could motivate players to play over and over again. So maybe a game with no skill development whatsoever can be fun for a short while, there is no real incentive to keep playing – an essential part of games-based learning.

For me, the rise of simulation games cements the importance of learning through gameplay. For most people, there is nothing intrinsically exciting about running a hospital, keeping the streets clean or chopping down trees, but simulation games exist to allow people to play out all of their wildest fantasies in these areas. For instance, players can learn about what it takes to run a successful hospital – ensuring hygiene standards remain high, employing the right staff, securing a sufficient budget… it is the play element which brings this otherwise dense, complex and sometimes dry content to life, and allows the learner to get to grips with the material without actually endangering the lives of hundreds of A&E patients. It is easy to see how the same notion can be applied to games created for soldiers to practise using new equipment, or to test out what-if scenarios on the battlefield without endangering their lives. Providing feedback, such as awarding points or achievements for adopting the right strategy, can make for a compelling gaming experience which may not even feel like learning.

Do you agree with Sid Meiers that learning is an essential part of a good game? Or do you think that games are purely about fun, and that you can play a game without learning anything? We’d love to hear your thoughts on Twitter @leolearning, or get in touch if you’d like to know more about how LEO Learning Preloaded can help you create engaging Games with Purpose for learning.