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A New Era for Serious Games

There is a quiet sea change occurring in companies’ attitudes to games-based learning. Barely eighteen months ago there was little interest in using serious games for training outside the defence and healthcare sectors. Today, L&D professionals across all industries – not to mention marketing teams, finance and recruitment specialists – are all clamouring for more information on the subject.

And it’s not surprising, when serious games advocates like Intellego’s Andy Hasoon are making claims that 20 minutes of a serious game simulation can be as effective as one hour’s worth of e-learning. However, such claims are notoriously tricky to prove, so how should companies gauge whether the games-based learning approach is right for them?

The power of play

Serious games are generally agreed to be games in which the primary purpose of playing is something other than pure entertainment. However, most good contemporary serious games borrow heavily from entertainment video games, and this is both a strength and a weakness. The best video games are incredibly motivating and captivating, leading to high levels of player engagement and speedy mastery of content. Ask most video game players (and with the average age of players now being 35, that’s a giant chunk of the working population) if games are a good medium for learning, and they say ‘yes, of course’. For those of us who have grown up playing games, their usefulness as tools for learning is self-evident. But for the still sizeable chunk who don’t play video games, there remains a high degree of suspicion towards this new medium – largely as a result of the media’s fondness for equating violent video games with violent behaviour, but also because the word ‘game’ itself carries an implication of frivolity that sits uncomfortably in the boardroom.

Yet at Pixel Learning’s recent London-based seminar on Serious Games, it was clear from the makeup of the audience that business professionals are starting to overcome their suspicions and take a serious look at the opportunities presented by games-based learning. And, indeed, with some of the claims circulating regarding the effectiveness of serious games, it would be foolish not to explore whether an immersive simulation could be a better investment than yet another point and click piece of traditional e-learning. Pixel’s CEO, Richard Smith, drew our attention to a recent simulation built by Pixel for a large auditing firm for $750,000, which apparently delivered a very high ROI in just six months. Other examples include a 3D simulation for health and safety training built for engineers on the Public Transit System in Montreal: not only did test results increase from 62% to 92%, but costs dropped from $763 per employee to $300 and training time dropped by 50% (according to a report by Caspian Learning).

A caveat

It is very difficult to find research proving the effectiveness of any learning technology, whether it be textbooks, lectures or video game-style simulations. Roger Broadie, a Director at Naace, explains the problem:

The fundamental problem is that you cannot directly link use of technology to raised scores, except in very limited circumstances such as the exam revision studies done by SAM Learning, because in normal teaching/learning the ICT is only part of the environment and a lot of other factors are in play. So you can only correlate.

However, a very positive meta-analysis of research investigating the effects of technology on K-12 student outcomes concluded that “the overall effects are nearly twice as large as other recent meta-analyses conducted in the area of instructional technology.” (Waxman, Lin & Hichko)

So, although grand claims for the effectiveness of serious games (as with any learning technology) need to be treated with caution – especially those made by developers with a product to sell – there is nothing to suggest that serious games are any less effective than other delivery methods, and a great deal of anecdotal evidence to suggest that the increased engagement levels experienced by players of serious games make them a viable investment in certain circumstances.

Beyond the bottom line

Some learning objectives just can’t be adequately met through traditional e-learning. Blitz Games’ healthcare training simulation, Triage Trainer, led to 28% greater accuracy in performing triage amongst those who had played the game. A more leftfield example is the game ReMission, which was successful in encouraging young people with cancer to take their medications. If a learning objective would be best met by learners engaging in real-life actions or decision-making, but the costs or risks of doing this ‘on the job’ are too high, then a simulation can be your next best option. An environment that simulates the stresses and challenges of real life but which provides space for ‘safe failure’ can be a great way to raise attainment in anything from negotiation skills to handling dangerous goods.

Serious games are also highly suitable for trainees with low motivation for learning, or those on a training course that already contains a lot of e-learning or traditional learning. Serious games/simulations are particularly good for teaching strategic thinking, decision-making in real time, or for practising complex activities, and provided costs can be contained (there tends to be a lot of ‘scope creep’ with games unless they are well designed at the outset), they are a viable option for delivery.

Business is booming

Perhaps the clearest sign that serious games are here to stay is the growth in UK firms specialising in their design and development. There are industry hotspots in London, Dundee and the Midlands (where firms cluster around Coventry’s Serious Games Institute – an independent research body with a growing network of outposts around the world). The UK has a number of highly-respected university courses in games design, and there is an ever-increasing number of graduates and professional developers with the skills necessary to create games engines that are both robust and flexible enough to meet the growing need for multi-device deployment. As companies develop and refine reusable games engines, and rapid development tools like Pixel learning’s Netbeans product become more common, the cost of building a viable serious game comes more within the reach of small and medium-sized businesses.

Good design is the key to success

But as serious games designer Helen Routledge asserts: a serious game is only as good as its design. Instructional designers with game design expertise are vital to the development of a good educational game, and this is why companies are increasingly turning to providers like Leo Learning to guide them through the design process. The technical expertise to build a games engine is one key ingredient, but equally important is the ability to apply the principles of excellent game design to complex and sometimes dry material. Ask your instructional designer if they enjoy playing games in their spare time – if the answer is no, it may be time to reconsider your options!

Leo is using our growing in-house expertise in serious and educational games to explore a variety of game-based offerings with our clients. Get in touch if you’d like to know more.

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