Games for Learning? You Can't be Serious!


A woman sits at her work desk, shooting lasers and jumping over hurdles in an action-packed onboarding game.

A young man practices his aviation skills through a realistic flight simulator. With the rise of serious games, it would not be uncommon to see these scenes in work environments. Serious games, or games developed to be educational as well as entertaining, take many forms, including puzzles, game shows and simulations.

Despite the rise of game-based learning, many businesses are still skeptical that games can actually teach, and learners are skeptical that learning can ever be fun or engaging. Poorly designed serious games can reinforce companies’ and students’ fears about this tool. However, when done right, serious games can save companies time and money, and efficiently and intuitively teach learners new skills in a fun and motivating manner. Moreover, serious games particularly appeal to the learning styles of the Net Generation — people born in or after the 1980s — who grew up with computers.


Serious games are especially appealing and effective to members of the Net Generation, who are now entering the workforce.

The appeal lies in the way this generation views knowledge acquisition. They grew up using computers at a young age and are used to acquiring information at the click of a button. Since they have so much independent access to information (with Google,Wikipedia, etc.), they take an active approach to learning instead of passively absorbing information.

A study published in the International Journal of Social Sciences this year by Robert Kenny and Glenda Gunter found that the Net Generation generally does not think learning has to occur at a certain place (like a lecture hall), but that learning can occur anywhere at anytime.

Many serious games can be accessed through the Internet at the learner’s leisure. These learners look up directions on Google Maps, find movie reviews on, and ask their classmates about assignments on Facebook. For them, the flexible, learn- er-centered approach of serious games is simply an extension of the types of behaviors in which they already engage daily.

Serious games can be useful even when the Net Generation is not the target audience. Many topics are expensive and unfeasible to train using instructor-led programs. The simulation A Force More Powerful, for example, lets learners simulate peaceful protests of dictatorships. Putting on a “practice protest” in the flesh would be a logistical nightmare.

Serious games also tend to work well when workers need flexibility to learn on their own time because of busy, conflicting schedules.


In 2007, Sun Microsystems commissioned Enspire Learning to create an onboarding game. Sun wanted to appeal to a younger demographic of potential employees, to teach them about the company, and to generate enthusiasm about joining the company. However, they also wanted to appeal to current employees (mean age 42), many of whom work remotely and rarely see the office; the company wanted them to feel integrated into it.

After testing several iterations, Enspire created two games for Sun. One, Rise of the Shadow Specters, was a puzzle-based action game in which learners dodged lasers, jumped from platform to platform, and evaded the villainous shadow specters. The other, Dawn of the Shadow Specters, was a “choose-your-own-adventure” game that appealed to employees who did not like video games. The project was a success, but only because of careful attention to detail.

The Sun project shows that some serious business needs, like increasing enthusiasm for the company, can be achieved using a fun game. Not all serious games will be as fantasy- oriented and action-packed as Rise of the Shadow Specters, but this game is an example of the diverse needs that serious games can meet for a company. The Sun game worked because both the company and the game developers attended to details such as these:

 >> Know Your Audience. Different audiences want different types of games. Some people are frustrated by video games, while others are bored by textbased adventure games.
Would employees enjoy learning through twitch-based games? Do they want the freedom to enter any level at any time and explore the game without a directed path? Do they want the opportunity to continue a previous game?

Because learners’ preferences vary by company and department, it is imperative to consider not only how they learn, but also how they would react to different types of games. Since different demographics are divided on how they view games and which games they think are “serious,” it is very important to have a conversation about audience and to test the game on the target audience.

 >> Assess Business Goals. Know what the game must achieve. Game-based learning is an extremely broad field. Games can be used for anything from advertising and onboarding to highly technical training. Even though “games” as a general category can be used for very diverse goals, different types of games appeal to different business goals.

If your game is an optional onboarding exercise, it should be stress-free and fun, making employees want to play. However, if the game is training doctors to use a difficult piece of equipment, you would want to set a grave tone and consequences for performing the wrong actions. Business goals set the tone of the game, as well as guide the game’s format.

>> Mechanics Mirror Content. A serious game is not a superficial learning experience; it must immerse the learner in the content. This can often be done through an engaging narrative that heightens the learner’s interest. But engagement alone does not make learners retain information, which brings us to the question of integrating content.

Kenny and Gunter divulge that engaging narratives work best in serious games when the learning content is integrated into the fantasy, instead of staying removed from it. For example, Rise of the Shadow Specters allowed players to use “special powers,” representing the powers of different departments at Sun, to defeat the Shadow Specters. If developers had instead taught players about Sun departments only at the end of each action level, the same information would have seemed disconnected and a nuisance. Games should stay intuitive instead of patronizing the learner.

Games are not textbooks, and shouldn’t look like textbooks. Tutorials should be kept to a minimum and be integrated into early levels of the game.

>> Testing. Ben Katz, an Enspire Learning game developer who worked on the Sun project, said that one of the greatest successes of the project was that the team quickly generated a prototype, which allowed the game developers to test out the game and receive informal feedback from players. Testing numerous iterations of a game design is essential to a successful game and should be integrated into the budget and time used for development.  

Leave a reply