Beyond Entertainment: The Serious Business of Games

3 billion hours per week are spent playing games!!! What if we increased that to 21 billion hours, could we save the world by the next decade? That is what Jane McGonical argues in her TED Talk.

Consider this: If it is true that games can address fundamental problems plaguing humanity, imagine what games can do for organizational learning and performance?

Using games to save the world may be a tall order, but to help achieve educational outcomes is very plausible. After all, games have been used for non-entertainment (read “serious”) purposes for centuries! The corporate sector is now beginning to acknowledge its impact, and the term serious gaming is gaining recognition in the field of training and education. The growing serious games market is estimated to be at $150 million, and is expected to grow to be a billion-dollar market in the next decade or sooner (http://www.businessweek.com/innovate/content/aug2007/id20070813_756874_page_2.htm).

Why did it take so long for games to be considered as a valid instructional strategy? Games awaken our intrinsic motivation, and through play, rules, goals, and set winning conditions, we challenge our thinking and become actively engaged. They allow for a personalized learning experience that is based on the learner’s game play, in turn providing multiple teachable moments that can be built-in to the game design. Feedback – essential component for effective learning – is adapted to the learner’s response in the game. Learners use metacognitive strategies to view the same problem from different angles, assimilate knowledge, evaluate their own progress, and achieve set goals. After all, is this what every instructional designer aspires to when creating any learning experience?

At the core of game-based learning lies engagement, and it is said that an engaging learning experience is also an effective one! With cognitive and emotional engagement, you can motivate the learner to seek multiple pathways to resolve a problem and come up with novel solutions. The problem is that setting conditions where the learner is engaged is not an easy task.  As Prensky states, high levels of engagement require good education and good entertainment, two elements that can be difficult to blend in perfect synchronicity (http://engaginglearning.com:8000/EngagingLearningChapter1.pdf). Let’s just remember that learning through games is deeply engrained in us, and it is how we learned as children. The primitive nature of games and play make mastering this approach all the more valuable.

Game-based learning is becoming increasingly popular in organizational learning because it promotes higher-order thinking (with the proper strategies of course). Common misconceptions are that games can only be effective with younger audiences, and that critical business skills cannot be trained in this format. Well how about the fact that the United States Army (considered by some to be the greatest training organization of all time!) uses games and immersion to prepare troups for combat! (http://www.americasarmy.com/) Other large organizations such as IBM, Cisco, Johnson & Johnson are also using serious games to train their staff (http://www.businessweek.com/innovate/content/aug2007/id20070813_756874_page_2.htm). Bottom line is that games are not just for the young, but rather the young at heart.

Hold on! You may now be thinking that only large corporations can afford to experiment with new forms of learning… and that may be a valid argument. However, with what we know now, we can accomplish this at lesser scales through creativity and hard work. As instructional designers, we need to be constantly looking at ways to improve our “creations”.  And is it that risky or bold to use methods that have been proven effective in learning since the beginning of time?

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