Serious Games: more than just a gimmick?

Serious Games are on the rise, diversifying the student experience across the UK and the world. But is game technology in education here to stay or is it a passing fad? Genna Ash investigates

The breakdown

• Serious Games involve simulations, virtual reality and mixed media to train players through gameplay

• “Its strength comes from its ability to deliver training associated with soft skills, which are difficult to replicate through conventional teaching practices…” – Nathan Roberts, Wrexham Glyndŵr University

• Serious Games can adapt to the diverse needs of players, making them a vehicle for SEND inclusion in the classroom

• “A single classroom holds an entire spectrum of abilities, but the traditional structure only allows them all to move at a single pace” – Max Vetter, chief cyber officer, Immersive Labs

• Forecasts predict exponential growth for the SG market in the next few years

• “I think we’re going to need to build out a practice where we can better instrument and measure the actual outcomes, because right now there is not nearly enough research out there with respect to the measurement of outcomes” – Sarah Toms, executive director, Wharton Interactive

The industry at large

The UK has long been known as a hub for video game production. From Rockstar North, to Traveller’s Tales, Codemasters and beyond, games from the nation’s industry juggernauts have taken the world by storm. Ukie data shows that there were 2,261active games companies in the UK as of June 2018, serving an international audience of between 2.2 and 2.6 billion people. This success is echoed on all corners of the world, with the global game software market expected to grow from US$137.9bn in 2018 to an estimated US$180m by the end of 2021.

What are Serious Games?

The primary purpose of a ‘serious’ game is not simply to entertain, but to train players or participants in one or more specific discipline, including fields like education, health care, advertising and politics. These digital experiences incorporate simulations, virtual reality and mixed media to provide training opportunities through responsive narrative, gameplay or encounters. “I’m working on a project in association with a number of government sectors and as part of my own research,” said Nathan Roberts, senior lecturer in computing at Wrexham Glyndŵr University. “For me, serious games offer unique and innovative ways to provide specialist training,” he added. “It isn’t about providing something under the disguise of an entertainment game but using gaming technology to deliver unique benefits and innovative ways of engaging users.”

One such application is a profiling device that uses gaming technology as a training tool to capture best practice. Nathan explained that the platform involves role play, immersing players in a rich and realistic VR environment. “It uses emotional artificial intelligence to provide dynamic content that changes depending on how people interact. It’s a training application for prison officers to promote effective strategies associated to the de-escalation of conflict. It allows them to engage with dangerous situations safely, analysing and capturing best practice while also providing a platform to share this with others. Its strength comes from the ability to deliver training associated with soft skills, which are difficult to replicate through conventional teaching practices as they are predominately acquired through experience and not theory.”

This is just one example of serious games (SGs) in action. The scope and potential for this sort of technology is huge – especially when it comes to best practice training. Roberts’ various SG projects have also served charity organisations, looking at the rehabilitation of young people and adults with disabilities. “We were working with a specialist charity in collaboration with the NHS and the Welsh government, and this is something we engaged students in too,” he explained. “Typically, rehabilitation techniques at these organisations involve exercise equipment and different exercise schedules. My task was to investigate innovative approaches to engage users through technology using VR headsets and custom sensors, which link the exercise equipment to a computer game, effectively making the exercise equipment a controller for the game. We developed and adapted a game that was a hybrid of Wipeout and Mario Kart, which are popular racing games. It allows users to link individual training profiles and through this, create bespoke environments that can support the needs of the user to support their rehabilitation. So say, for instance, that those using the game and exercise equipment have movement problems with their left arm, we can modify the game to generate more obstacles on that side, encouraging them to use their left arm more with the exercise equipment.”

SGs in education

The concept of gamification is nothing new. In a timeline of the trend, Gamify notes that the first example of gamification dates as far back as 1896 with S&H Green Stamps, which marketers sold to retailers to reward loyal customers and keep them coming back. The Boy Scout movement, founded in 1908, employs a similar model, using badges to incentivise members and acknowledge their achievements. The first case of gamification in education occurred in 2009, when Quest To Learn enrolled a class of Grade 6 students in a gamified learning environment. Now, gamified learning and teaching elements can be found throughout the global education sector. But the concept of ‘gamification’ is not necessarily the same as the serious game.

“Gamification is often viewed as making something with gameplay elements, rewarding (trophies, points) in order to make it more entertaining, which often has dire consequences and frequently trivialises the meaning of Serious Games,” Roberts explained. “Serious games to me are more about enriching practices and offering new innovative applications through technology, embracing new forms of interaction that were not possible through conventional approaches. ‘Serious Games’, in its most simplistic form, is using game technology for serious application, not necessarily gamifying it.”

Source: Statista

But how do educators determine which content is appropriate for the SG format? “Where we always begin is by having conversations with faculty about the learning objectives, so it really needs to be learning objective-driven,” said Sarah Toms, executive director of Wharton Interactive. “The next stage after that is really thinking about where a game would be better than a lecture. One of the ways it can be better is that a lecture talks about one topic one week, another topic the next week, and these topics two weeks from now, and that’s when students start to lose grip of the relationship between the topic happening today versus the topic being covered next week. Where games have the biggest impact is through integrating these topics and showing the trade-offs between them.” Toms believes games are a really great way to bring many ideas together under one umbrella, giving students a chance to really “see what happens when the rubber hits the road” with respect to those topics and the decision-making relating to them. “That’s where we always begin,” she said, “by watching lectures, by watching faculty at work. Then we also start to look at where students are having big implementation questions; where they’re really pushing faculty about the relevance in the real world versus where the theory is telling them they should be with respect to best practices or research.”

SEND inclusion

Established in January 2017, Immersive Labs is described as the world’s first fully interactive, gamified and on-demand cyber-skills platform. After delivering GCHQ’s cyber summer school that same year, founder James Hadley realised that class-based learning didn’t suit the needs or the pace of the cybersecurity profession. He saw content fast becoming outdated, with its one-dimensional nature often alienating creative minds. This is a major downfall in a sector that is largely innovation driven. Hadley recognised the need for a practical online solution; one that would enable users to safely handle threats while equipping them with skills needed to thrive in cyber-based roles.

As Max Vetter, chief cyber officer at Immersive Labs, explained: “Me and James were working in a classroom setting, and we definitely saw problems there. We were doing a 12-week summer school with a bunch of young, bright kids with a variety of personality types – some introverts, some extroverts, some with personality disorders as well. We found that the classroom setting is really bad for those sorts of people most of the time – whether it’s an issue with concentration, an issue with mobility, or whether it’s something else entirely, classroom learning is very rigid. A single classroom holds an entire spectrum of abilities, but the traditional structure only allows them all to move at a single pace, meaning some students are bored while others are being pushed too hard.”

Vetter explained that one of the biggest benefits of SGs is their ability to adapt to the needs of individual players. Learners set their own pace as they progress through the narrative, empowered by the option to do so alone or as part of a team. When you consider that dyslexic children can take up to 10 times longer to master certain subskills (Nicolson and Fawcett 1994), and that 10% of the UK population is dyslexic, you start to understand how the uncompromising rote learning structure can breed feelings of frustration among some students. As an emerging trend within the sector, research into the impact of SGs is lacking, but we can make informed assumptions based on the wealth of studies conducted in the field of gamification. Results from a 2016 study by UCL, for example, indicated that teaching practices surrounding gamification help to shape the pedagogical and motivational benefits. When learners are given a sense of control over the gamified learning platform, with personalised rewards granted for completing individual challenges, it fosters a sense of agency, reflection and meaning which are critical for retention. In this particular study, giving students control over their award badges assisted them in identifying their own strengths and weaknesses. From this, we can deduce that the way educational gaming platforms are appropriated by teachers is just as important as game design when it comes to academic outcomes. But this form of tech in the classroom isn’t just a boost for those with linguistic or meta-cognitive difficulties, since its perks extend to most of the SEND population – including those with concentration issues (ADHD), communication and social deficits (autism), and intense phobias (anxiety disorders).

Source: EIDesign

“One of the projects I’m engaged in at the moment is for people with mental health issues, many of whom suffer from anxiety,” said Roberts. “So, if someone is really stressed, we’ll look at the mechanisms which can counteract those feelings. For students in particular, you can see how this would be beneficial. I used to be terrified of doing presentations, as most people are, and for some, pushing through it is impossible, so they can’t learn from experience. That’s where VR comes in – students are still learning from experience, but it eliminates the terrifying element of doing so in front of their peers. What we do is put them in these controlled environments where we can introduce people in layers – we can start off small and grow from there. You’ll usually find that communication issues disappear with VR because they know the environment is staged, and so they have a detachment from the fear they’d usually experience in a real world setting.”

Situated learning

One of the biggest criticisms in education today lies in the context of learning itself. More often than not, the traditional classroom environment delivers learning in a space that significantly differs from its real world application. Developed by Lave and Wegner in 1991, the situated learning theory (SLT) argues that knowledge should be learnt in the same space that it’s used. A major advantage of SGs is that they allow teachers to place students in authentic simulations that reflect real world contexts, while simultaneously eradicating the dangers associated with doing so in a physical space. A science or geography teacher, for example, can set up a VR field trip to the bottom of the ocean to show their class the full scale of plastic pollution first-hand. This experience could never be replicated in real life, not just because of the danger associated with such an activity but also due to factors such as tight school budget constraints.

“So with situated learning, you’re thinking about actually putting students into a real world environment. And when I say real world, we’re talking hyper-realistic,” said Toms. “For example, we have a three-week long experience where our students are running a start-up and they actually run into all the common challenges and issues that start-ups generally face. It’s so realistic that a lot of our students don’t even know where the game ends and reality begins. The characters come to life within the game and then we leverage real world experts – company lawyers and investors, for example – and we have them actually play those characters in real life. They then have out-of-game meetings before coming back to the game to make meaningful decisions. That’s what makes games really great. Through game play, those students are incredibly engaged. It doesn’t force them to think about a right or wrong answer but rather about its application in the real world. There’s also the safety aspect of being able to go through a simulated experience and make mistakes in a safe environment, considering the outcomes of your mistakes and then practicing until mastery.”

What next for SG technology?

Forecasts predict that the SG market will experience exponential growth in the next few years. With smartphones, tablets, and other connected devices fast becoming a commonplace feature of the 21st century classroom, it’s only a matter of time before Serious Games hold a presence in every discipline at virtually every education level.

“What we’re going to see is more development of serious games that achieve exactly what they need to for the users, rather than just trying to copy what other commercial games look like and just bolt on some extra things and call it educational,” said Vetter. “There’s going to be new types of gamification coming out which wouldn’t work in a classic game environment, but which do work really well in a serious game. Because more money is going into it and SGs are now getting quite significant investments, I think that will naturally progress and there’ll be more and more types of serious games, and I think we’ll start to see them differentiate from commercial gaming elements. They’ll increasingly be designed around the output of this technology rather than the aesthetics of the game itself.”

Source: Forbes

Sarah Toms agrees: “We’re going to be seeing a lot more SG technology. I think we’re going to need to build out a practice where we can better instrument and measure the actual outcomes, because right now there is not nearly enough research out there with respect to the measurement of outcomes, but I absolutely believe that serious games will be in every discipline, and the technology itself will continue to improve and become more connected within the learning experience.”

From accessibility and inclusion to their ability to support situated learning, the pros of SGs in education seem to far outweigh the cons. Above all else, serious games are capable of making the impossible, possible. When it comes to educating future generations, that opportunity is huge, and undoubtedly one that educators can’t afford to miss.