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Should You Take Serious Games More Seriously?

John Helmer points out some common misconceptions about serious games and highlights a range of case studies where they are generating real results for organisations.

Serious games have a serious image problem in some quarters. But there is a growing body of evidence that game-based learning can be highly successful in driving business results, and a variety of drivers are making it harder and harder to ignore as a candidate medium where deep and immersive learning needs to be delivered online. So should you be taking serious games more seriously?

Serious challenges

Let’s be honest about the cultural challenges that confront game-based learning in the workplace.

We don’t go to work to play games. This simple dichotomy between work and play is so deeply entrenched that 70% of learning professionals are against using the term “game” at all in connection with learning (E-learning Guild 2007). And where management can be persuaded to conscience the idea of using a game to get serious learning points across, they sometimes require the scripting of those games to be so ‘on-the-nose’ in banging their points home that the end-result hardly seems like a game at all from the user’s point of view.

Neither is it safe to assume, as many do, that the problem of cultural resistance is generational and therefore will naturally disappear over time. Computer games have been around in one shape or another for four decades now, but not all people under forty are rabid gamers. Within a single learner group you might have people who live much of their leisure time in virtual worlds and have 4-5 consoles at home, but there will also be those who have never played a single computer game. And L&D professionals, a group that contains a disproportionate number of people who are not gamers (LineZine) are more likely to be among the refuseniks, culturally speaking, than the enthusiasts.

Not all the problems with acceptance of serious games can be laid at the door of practitioners, however. As an industry, we don’t necessarily help matters. Suppliers lack a shared vocabulary, or common methods and processes. Crucially, the way they quote costs differs widely and adds confusion. 2008 research by Networked Learning Design Ltd. showed a range of £23,000 to £250,000 per hour, which tends to support the view that the traditional ‘per-hour’ way of charging e-learning is less than useful as a yardstick.

Generally speaking, Serious Games are perceived to be seriously expensive, and that perception has not necessarily changed as costs have come down in recent years. Research quoted on this blog showed that almost all clients tend to over-rate their potential costs.

Serious results

Despite these challenges, however, a growing weight of evidence is being amassed that games-based learning can achieve significant business results. Here are some examples.

• Inclusion of off-the-shelf business simulation games in Business Management and Economics courses for undergraduates increased comparative mean test scores by 10-20%. (Richard Blunt)

• Public Transit System in Montreal (STM) Canada used a bespoke 3D simulation game for health and safety training. Average test results increased from 62% to 92%, while costs dropped from $763 per employee to $300; training time drop by 50% (Caspian/MOD)

• University of Central Florida found that students in a maths course who used interactive maths games improved 8.07 points between pre and post testing, compared with non-gamers, who improved 3.74 points. (Kebritchi et al 2008)

• Trainee surgeons playing Marble Mania (Wii) for 60 mins before performing simulated gallbladder operations scored 48% higher than those who did not play (Real Projects)

• Adding a simulation/game “Supercharged!”, students learning about electromagnetic forces improved post-lecture scores by 28%, as compared to a control group who only improved by 15% (Kurt Squire)

• A study at Troy University showed that participants in leadership training generally did not apply what they had learned in the workplace 6 months later. Adding a leadership simulation “significantly improved” recall and application of leadership skills 6 months later. (Aldrich)

• Participants in an inventory management course who used a simulation scored a mean of 4.23 out of 5 in post tests, as compared with 2.89 for those who did not

It is important to note that each of the above examples is from a very different environment, using a very different type of game, showing not only the diversity of game-based learning (one of the things that makes it difficult to cost), but also that it has already moved beyond the zone of obvious early adopter sectors – eg. Defence, dangerous environments – into more widespread corporate applications in areas such as complex soft skills and complex business processes.


Alongside the evidence of success for serious games there are a variety of drivers that point to a bigger role for games-based approaches in learning.

Theories of cognition – with the burgeoning importance of neuroscience as a field of study, more and more evidence is emerging about the importance of immersion, application and construction of knowledge in learning, all of which plays to the strengths of games-based approaches.

Commercial gaming – consumer games have become one of the largest world industries; in most western countries people spend more on games than on films. Ubiquity leads to familiarity; in turn producing a changed expectation about the type of media that can and should be used for effective learning.

Industry/training – in the current recessionary economic climate organisations more than ever have to find innovative, powerful ways of improving performance.

Social networks – have not only resulted in particular types of social games, but have accelerated the dissemination of gaming. Games are for many people an integral part of the Facebook experience. The Foursquare phenomenon applies a gaming logic to geolocated social networking: users gain points, badges and mayorships for ‘checking in’ as they move around from place to place. This is far from the familiar stereotype of the lone adolescent locked away in a bedroom. Gaming is becoming increasingly social and collaborative – just like learning!

Technology convergence – games are available on such a range of platforms that they find their way into every aspect of our lives. Who would have thought the iPhone would become such an important gaming platform? Now the iPad seems to be going the same way. With gaming becoming such a pervasive part of everyday life, surely it would be foolish to ignore its potential for use as a medium for learning?


The cultural challenges for game-based approaches in the organisational context should not be underestimated. However, with significant results being achieved, and with technological and social factors all pointing the way to a central role for game-based approaches in future learning, these are challenges that it is clearly worth facing up to sooner rather than later.

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