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When Game-Based Learning Doesn't Work

In this article, serious game consultant Sande Chen discusses specific instances where game-based learning may not be effective and how serious game developers can make improvements.

Sande Chen

February 7, 2014

2 Min Read

As the co-author of the book, Serious Games: Games That Educate, Train, and Inform, and a serious games consultant, I will happily point to the advantages of using serious games in the classroom and workplace.  Games are great at conveying systems and allowing exploration in a safe, virtual environment.  As has been shown in studies in the classroom, the use of deep (vs. drill and practice) games can make a remarkable difference in the learning outcomes of otherwise reluctant students.

However, there is one subset of students that may still need convincing:  Adults.

At the 2013 Games4Change Conference, Dr. Alicia Sanchez presented results of a study based on the use of games at the Defense Acquisition University.  Despite efforts, there were some adult students that felt the games were frivolous and especially disliked being seen playing a video game with a cartoony character.  Learning outcomes were better for these students when they avoided these lighthearted games entirely.

These results reoccurred when a serious game developer wanted to introduce a game to help would-be employees of the airline industry memorize airport codes.  Adults preferred to rely on their own tried and tested methods of memorization rather than muddle about with the new game.  The majority of the target audience did not even try the game.

What can we take away from these examples?  How can we reconcile these results with other studies that state that learning outcomes do significantly improve with the use of serious games? 

In both of the "fail" results, the adults didn't want to be seen playing an edutainment-like product, replete with childish helper characters and bright text.  These were also both situations where the adults' future jobs were on the line.  If one doesn't follow the right procedure in defense acquisition or doesn't know the right airport code, that person will not get the job.  Even if the game wasn't like edutainment, why risk job security?

When simulations are used in the workplace, adults clearly see the benefit.  Here's how you should land an airplane, conduct offshore drilling, fight a wildfire, run a roller coaster safely, etc.  These are deeper experiences in which adults can see a clear connection between serious game and job security.  As a target audience, adults may need a more "serious" visual presentation to take games as learning tools seriously.  To put it bluntly, adults need more convincing, especially in the workplace.

Furthermore, serious game developers should be striving for these deeper experiences in their games.  These are the types of games that slough off the shackles of edutainment and show why games are useful in the classroom and beyond the classroom:  in the workplace.

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About the Author(s)

Sande Chen


A co-founder of Writers Cabal, Sande Chen works as a game writer and designer. In 2008, she was nominated for a Writers Guild of America Award in Outstanding Achievement in Videogame Writing. While still at film school at USC, she was nominated for a Grammy in music video direction. She can be reached at: [email protected]

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