Playing to Learn – Learning to Play

There are many arguments for games in education; so called serious games are engaging, they provoke applied or contextualized knowledge (problem solving) and they are good for meta-skill learning (explore choice and consequence). And don’t be fooled by the title, educational games don’t necessarily have to be “serious”. In fact one learns best in informal and joyful atmospheres, so the title is more geared towards the finality than the experience. When I bought my 92 year old grandmother a Nintendo Wii for Christmas the finality was even double “serious”, on the one hand she will train her reaction and fitness, but as importantly, she has a shared point of interest with her great-grandchildren who love to play the Wii and hence come over and socialize and spent time with their great-grandmother.

Rather than theorizing & philosophizing, I would like to review some of the “action on the ground”. So in the following paragraphs you will find a selection of what is being done in terms of serious gaming today. But before I start my “state of the art” selection, allow me to raise that offline games like Monopoly serve to learn about, and experience capitalism since 1935, and that many classic computer games like Civilization (1991) or Railroad Tycoon (1990) also have a didactic setup. Hence I guess it is fair to disclose I am a constructivist, and thus believe that one always learns “something” when playing, the question is how central and serious the learning is for the game author.

Serious Games for Language Learning

One very powerful application for serious gaming is to immerse the player into a environment setup in a foreign language, but stacked with explanations and study aids in the learners mother tongue. In setups like the Tactical Language Training System (TLTS) the learner is situated in a game world where s/he carries out a mission and gets involved in pedagogical dramas (Johnson, Vilhjalmsson, & Marsella, 2005). In open virtual world environments like SecondLife educators are experimenting in collaborative peer-produced learning scenarios such as Central Missouri State University’s German Room (part of the english OER version of UOC’s SecondLife Summer Course; Senges, 2007a). It will be interesting to see whether specialized ‘closed’ settings that offer the advantage of a more controlled learing experience, or open virtual worlds will prevail because of their advantages for collaboration and the excitement of a “live” and more social experience.

Training through Role-Play & Simulation

However it is the trajectory of the traditional gaming sector of (technology) simulations and social role-playing that is applied most in private professional education (which is generally leading the experimentation and integration of innovative learning practices vis-à-vis public educational institutions). Deborah Wince-Smith, president of the Council on Competitiveness, states that to stay globally competitive requires companies to train their employees in “deep creativity and imagination, strategic and analytical thinking, decision-making, excellence in planning and execution, and adaptation to rapid change. These key skills are the skills people exercise when they play sophisticated digital games.” (BusinessWeek, Aug, 2007). Following a 2007 survey (eLearning Guild) 38% of US insurance companies and more than 50% of financial service providers are investigating the use of games for training purposes. The definition of what constitutes a game is by nature very broad, and hence the spectrum of what is understood as “serious” professional training games reaches from having a competition on who gets the best score in a multiple choice test (at Phillips)

One example is a conglomerate of top companies (incl. McKinsey, Siemens, Credite Swiss) that uses the management simulation “CEO of the Future” in which participants have to lead a solar panel company to success, as pre-selection tool for high potential employees.
Eliane Alhadeff does a really good job in reviewing an additional number of game based training initiatives at her blog Future Making Serious Games.

However diverse the current scenario for professional game based training might be, Stanford professor and partner at IDEO Diego Rodriguez says: “The future of work is here; it’s just disguised as a game”.

Playful Value-Education

More serious themes are tackeled, and even softer skills and values are trained, in a genre that describes itself as “Games for Change”. Possibly the most eminent game in that catergory was developed by the United Nations World Food Program (WFP). In Food Force, which has been downloaded more than three million times, the player is sensitized and learns about the daily challenges of the missions of the WFP. Encouraged by this success the UN has recently launched a game meant to bring attention to the humanitarian crisis in Dafur (Sudan). The game with the dramatic title Dafur is Dying is played online and does not convince me as much.

Co-Creative Serious Games

While I highly appreciate the innovativeness of using games and simulations as learning environments, I believe learning environments where users are prosumers and become engaged not only in “following” a pedagogic experience but are entrepreneurial contributors in a community of practice (CoP) or interest (CoI) that explore and co-create knowledge by constructing the virtual environment (as is the case in SecondLife) or engage in discussion and knowledge sharing (for example in virtual stock market games). I elaborate on one of the most disruptive innovation using serious gaming I found at the University of Vienna on . “Prof. Hrachovec has used the text and scenario of Nitzsche’s Zaratustra to create the basis of a virtual reality. This virtual reality is now populated by students who are free to interact with the locations, actions and persons present in the virtual reality” (Senges, 2007b).

Serious Games & Educational Institutions

A serious challenge is posed to educational institutions interested to really integrate and institutionalize games as part of their teaching & learning practice. The first most pressing formal question is how to make gaming compatible with the standard evaluation criteria? How to assess student performance? And how can one guarantee the safety of students in open environments? Won’t they stroll of and “explore” unintended aspects, experience non-pedagogical content? And an even more fundamental problem of computer aided learning: How can we design educational experiences and environments with a stringent engagement so learners truly immerse in pursuing the hyper-info-trees of learning opportunities rather than floating on the multitude of distributed conversations and other virtual distractions simultaneously available?


BusinessWeek (2007) Special Report: The Power of Gaming
Johnson, W.L., Vilhjalmsson, H., & Marsella, S. (2005) Serious games for language learning: How much game, how much AI? In, Artificial intelligence in education; Looi, C.-K., et al (Eds). IOS Press
Senges, M. (2007a). SecondLife. Barcelona: UOC Editorial. Also available in english at

Senges, M. (2007b). Knowledge Entrepreneurship in Universities: Practice and Strategy in the case of Internet based Innovation appropriation., UOC, Barcelona.

Further recommended sites

The Education Arcade explores games that promote learning through authentic and engaging play. TEA’s research and development projects focus both on the learning that naturally occurs in popular commercial games, and on the design of games that more vigorously address the educational needs of players.

The Ludology blog deals with the discipline that studies games, play, toys and videogames.


2 thoughts on “Playing to Learn – Learning to Play

  1. Another great example is the most recent project by British publisher Penguin Books, We Tell Stories. Penguin experiments with different formats including Live-Writing a short novel; integrating stories with real life through Google Maps etc to change perception of the real world around you; and by using Alternate Reality Game techniques to offer (particularly young) readers a new approach to experiencing classic novels like Charles Dickens’ Hard Times.

    In this innovative project, serious gaming is used to explore literature, to find new ways of accessing books, and to give readers a chance not only to understand the process of writing literature but also to be part of that process.

    Great stuff!

    ps. I love the example of your 92-year old granny and her Wii!

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