Clark Quinn's Learnings about Learning
(The Official Quinnovation blog)

15 May 2008

(Serious) Games in 5 paragraphs

Clark @ 5:38 AM

Just as I did for mobile, here’re 5 paragraphs on games:

Serious Games (or, to be Politically Correct™, Immersive Learning Simulations) have hit the corporate learning mainstream, so you should be asking yourself: “why are people excited?” Quite simply, because games (I’m not PC™) are probably the most pragmatically effective learning practice you can get. Sure, mentored real performance is the ideal, but there are two potential hiccups: scaling individual mentors has proven to be unrealistically expensive, and mistakes in live practice often are expensive, dangerous, or both. Why do you think we have flight simulators?

For principled reasons, the best learning practice is contextualized, motivating, and challenging. Interestingly, so are the most engaging experiences. It turns out that the elements that cause effective educational practice line up perfectly with those that create engaging experiences. Thus, we can safely say that learning should be ‘hard fun’.

Then the issue becomes if we can do this reliably, repeatably, and on a cost-effective basis. It turns out that the answer to this question is also in the affirmative. While you can’t just shove gamers and educators in a room and expect the result to work (all the bad examples that led to ‘edutainment’ becoming a bad word are evidence), if they understand the alignment above, systematically follow a creative process (no, systematic creativity is not an oxymoron; why do we have brainstorming processes?), and are willing to take time to ‘tune’ the result, we can do this reliably.

The question is really: when to use games. The answer for engine-driven (read: programmed, variable) games is when we have a need for deep practice: when there are complex relationships to explore, or making the change will be really hard. Branching scenarios are useful when we want to experience some contextualized practice but we don’t need a lot of it. And the principles suggest that at minimum, we should write better multiple-choice questions that put learners into contexts where they must make decisions where they’re applying the knowledge, not just reciting it.

And, yes, we can spend millions of dollars (I can help :), but for many needs we may not need to. While there isn’t any one tool that lets us do this, there are a number of cost-effective ways to develop and deliver on the resulting design. As I like to say “if you get the design right, there are lots of ways to implement it; if you don’t get the design right, it doesn’t matter how you implement it”.

Further resources include:

  • My book on designing games
  • The eLearning Guild’s Research Report on ILS
  • The Serious Games site
  • Clark Aldrich’s blog on learning games
  • My other game blog posts


  1. Great stuff Clark.

    Comment by Jay Ayres — 15 May 2008 @ 7:38 AM

  2. Kia Ora Clark.

    I’m all for this idea. For years I’ve maintained that if the right stuff was put into kid’s games, for instance, we could be on a winner with learning. Two things brought me to this conclusion:

    1 – I was totally ignorant of anything to do with munitions, artillery, war strategies etc simply because I’ve been a pacifist all my life and never got into that sort of stuff as a child. But when I started playing Sid Meier’s Civilization I learnt so much so quickly (I had to, to survive the game) that it blew my socks off! It was simply a game but it taught me so much and not just about armaments.

    2 – I have been into designing and building RLO’s (reusable learning objects) for about a decade now. These interactive online devices have potential for use in the elearning environment provided kids are interested in using them.

    Put the two ideas together – a game/a learning device – and you have to be on to something really powerful as a teaching device.

    The lure for most kids has to be found though. Not all kids are interested in the same things. How do you avoid having to build several games themes to teach the same learning?

    Ka kite
    from Middle-earth

    Comment by Ken Allan — 15 May 2008 @ 9:45 PM

  3. Ken, thanks for the feedback. Yes, if you make the knowledge meaningful by the task/goals, then they might go learn it. But don’t force it on them, have it available at player’s discretion. And I’ve been using the notion of a PDA/device that the avatar has as a tool to access that info (re: your point 2, I think).

    It’s hard to find a theme that all the kids will like, though you have to try. The other thing is that sometimes you have sticks as well as carrots (e.g. “well, you can play the game or attend the lecture, the test is next week” :).

    Comment by Clark — 16 May 2008 @ 9:12 AM

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