Get Serious About Gaming: How Learning Games Can Boost Engagement with Content

As children, play is one of the most important ways we learn new skills and practice behaviors. Today, many eLearning experts believe that making play and games a part of your course or training can be a great way for adults to learn as well. After all, why should kids have all the fun?

So-called serious games, which are designed to help people learn, can be an important component of online training programs. By making learning fun, they motivate players to spend time mastering the skills they impart. But to accomplish this objective, they need to be carefully designed, with a lot of thought given to goals, rules, rewards, cues, and interactivity.

Monarch Media recently sat down with two top learning game designers, Kinection’s Doug Nelson and Vivayic’s Doug Kueker, to discuss best practices in developing serious games.

Monarch Media: There’s been some significant research in recent years into whether serious games promote learning. The consensus seems to be that if they’re well designed, games can motivate players to spend time mastering news tasks and practicing skills. Can you comment on the theory of why and how games help us learn?

“One key component of why games work so well is that they’re inherently motivating to the learner.”
—Doug Kueker, Vivayic

Doug Kueker, Vivayic, Inc.: One key component of why games work so well is that they’re inherently motivating to the learner. A well-designed game will give immediate feedback. Its level of challenge will also match well to the learner’s skill level. All of these elements combine to create a motivating experience with the content.

Doug Nelson, Kinection: Games can work more effectively than traditional training approaches. People get more engaged in the learning and they connect with it in a different way. It becomes something that they participate in rather than something that is done to them. And we all enjoy participating more than we enjoy just receiving information.

MM: Can you describe what you think makes a good learning game? What are the components that go into creating a game that helps players learn and master skills?

Nelson: A good learning game is one that forces users to make decisions, allows them to see the results of those decisions in real time, and lets them change their decisions and experiment with how they could improve their performance by trying things differently.

Good serious games model, to some extent, an actual work or real-world process. They ask the player to confront and make decisions in the context of that real-world process. If it’s about learning how to be a waiter and safety considerations for hot liquids, make me make decisions in handling hot liquids and suffer the consequences if I do it badly or the rewards if I do it well.

A good learning game should also be fun, which can be a loaded term for some people. Engaging people emotionally can in fact enhance their learning experience.

MM: Can you talk about your game design process? How do you help ensure a game meets its learning objectives?

Kueker: You have to start with a high-level concept for the game and understand what the core mechanics will be. We brainstorm around which game type will best fit the learning objectives and content we have. For examples, will players need to solve a puzzle? Will there be a role-playing experience? Some sort of novel task or action adventure, whether it’s rescuing a princess or reassembling the production line so you can get all of the widgets out for the next month?

Once there’s a concept it’s important to then get all of the stakeholders at the table involved — the content experts and the client, if those two are different people, prospective users, the programmers, and the designers. We try to make sure everyone’s collaborating as we move through the iterative process of creating storyboards, building prototypes, and then developing the actual working game.

Nelson: The first thing we do is define what the learning objectives for that game should be across three categories: knowledge, skills, and attitudes. Then we brainstorm what kind of a game structure could work effectively to address those outcomes. And, we don’t tie ourselves to a particular technology or tool. We think about 2D, 3D, first-person, third-person — we consider all of these different types of approaches that we might be able to use to address the learning outcomes.

Once we have an idea for the game’s general direction, we essentially start an agile development process, beginning with prototyping. We’ll come up with a core feature set, build the first version of the game, and start to play it to see if it works. Is it fun to play? Is it something that learners will want to do? Is it helping players achieve the educational outcomes?

If the game is going in the right direction, we then continue to use an agile process, incrementally adding content and challenges into the game and building it out, testing it along the way.

MM: What emerging technologies excite you with their potential to improve learning games? Obviously mobile gaming and the capabilities mobile devices bring are becoming part of the conversation.

Kueker: Mobile devices can really open up the potential of augmented reality (AR) games. With an AR viewer on a smart phone or tablet, you can literally point your device’s camera at something like a tourist attraction, let’s say the St. Louis Arch, and superimpose gaming and learning content over it.

There’s a form of gaming, geo-caching, where players can move outdoors with their mobile devices and actively find certain locations and items. It’s like a high-tech scavenger hunt and can incorporate a lot of learning goals.

What makes these mobile technologies interesting from a learning game development perspective is they liberate people from being in front of a stationary screen. You can blend real-life doing with in-game learning in some respects. We’re just on the edge of exploring these capabilities.

Nelson: I’m also excited about cheaper and more accessible game authoring environments. Tools like Unity, which is a game development environment we use a lot, are making game development accessible and affordable for a whole new class of developers. Now you can do really cool stuff in 3D without having to invest in an entire software 3D studio.

MM: I’d like to wrap up by having you give an example of a gaming project you worked on that exemplifies your approach.

Nelson: I’ll give you an example of a game we created for the U.S. Navy to teach their computer network operators to defeat hacking attempts. The Navy’s traditional approach to teaching this would have been to put together a 38-slide PowerPoint presentation and turn it into a traditional eLearning course.

Instead, we built a small hacking game, where you as the user have to defend your network against incoming attacks that start as soon as you start playing the game. We designed it so that almost everybody would fail the first time they played, and that was controversial with the client because they were really concerned that Navy officers would not like failing. Of course, all it did was get them to hit the start button again, come up with a new strategy, and think a little bit differently about how they should play. Many of them won on the second try and most of them won by the third time they played.

That motivation to repeat the game, the level of emotional engagement, and the drive to succeed for these guys made them engage that content in a way that they wouldn’t have if we would have just presented it to them in a PowerPoint.

My American Farm game screenshotKueker: The My American Farm project we developed with Monarch Media is a good example of using learning games to teach kids. The intent was to create a marketplace of games that combine short interactions, and it can be easily integrated into a classroom setting or played for fun at home. Each of the games have the common purpose of reinforcing academic skills while teaching young people about some facet of agriculture.

What made the project successful was the collaboration of all the different stakeholders. Another key component was implementing an iterative process to develop the games.

Success, as we’ve been able to measure it so far through visiting classrooms and watching students as they play, is seeing how engaged the kids are. They’re learning, they’re engaged, and they’re able to talk about what they’ve learned after they’ve played the game. I think that’s rare, that after a 7-10 minute learning interaction the students can actually tell you what they learned from it.

The games have really succeeded because they’re fun and easy for people to relate to — the content doesn’t hit you over the head like it sometimes does in an eLearning module. Instead it’s more of a process of learning by osmosis. People get immersed in the games and they learn during that immersion.

To play the My American Farms games, please visit the website at To learn more about how Monarch Media and its partners, Vivayic Inc. and Kinection, can help you develop learning games please fill out our Web-based form.