A PDF version of this essay, which includes references, can be found here.
The Future of Education and Serious Games
Formal education consists of traditions and roles that have not changed in a very long time. Teachers teach their crafts to a group of students at the same time and these students have to take standardized tests in order to evaluate their knowledge and potential. This method of education is certainly efficient, because it can reach many students at the same time, but it does not seem very effective from the perspective of the individual student. No student is the same, so it follows that there is a big variation between the educational requirements for different students. For example when material is taught in class, some students might find it too easy, whereas others might find it too difficult and only a few students might experience difficulty as just right for them. Another example of the individual differences between students is the best method for teaching. Traditional teaching might work for some students, but others might master a subject better by exploring it for themselves and finding new challenges.
In the past there was no solution to this in-effectiveness of the education system, but changes are on the horizon, following developments in technology during the previous decades. One of the early examples of this is computerized adaptive testing (CAT), which are different from standardized tests in that they adapt to the ability level of the student, until it finds the best difficulty level for that individual. As technology becomes smarter and cheaper, these tests can become better and smarter as well. Other advantages of such personalized education methods are that they can provide instant personalized feedback for students and costs can be saved, because not as many teachers or even schools could be required in such a system. When every student is walking around with phones as powerful as current computer systems, teaching can occur anywhere in theory.
Another way to improve the effectiveness of education is to make it more fun and engaging for students. This is where (serious) games could play a role.
Serious games are a subsection of games that serve a second purpose other than having fun, mostly to educate the user about a certain topic. While regular games are generally used as entertainment, many skills can still be learned from playing video games. Take for example a popular game, Left 4 Dead, in which four players have to work together to survive a zombie apocalypse and escape. This game has the potential to teach skills like team work, strategy, communication, situational awareness and more. Left 4 Dead is not a serious game by any stretch of the imagination, which leads me to an issue I have with the term ‘serious games’. This term indirectly implies that other games cannot be serious, while there are many things that can be learned from those games, such as the examples I listed above. Other games have been found to also positively influence cognitive skills. A better term would be ‘educational games’ so there would not be any confusion about the purpose of said games.
Another problem with serious games is their effectiveness (which also seems difficult to determine). Previous research has found that part of why computer games are effective for learning is that they engage players and motivate them via fun, challenges and instant visual feedback. This creates an immersive experience for players, which helps sustain interest in the game. This immersion is ruined if the game is laying the educational part on too thick, which is often the case with serious games. Serious games often have this problem with engaging players and keeping them immersed in the game.
Therefore I think the future of serious games should be focused more on short games that can assist other methods of education, but don’t require prolonged engagement by students. Personalization should be a part of these games, in order to maximize effectiveness. Currently, serious games seems to have the biggest presence in academia and not as much with consumers. To create a successful serious game with a big reach, serious games would need the backing of bigger developers and contributors in the education and gaming world, which seems problematic as the profits from serious games is currently well below the profits made from commercial games.
For the final project of the Serious Games course we created our own serious game called Space Discovery. In line with my earlier thoughts on gaming we aimed to make an engaging game with combinations of audio, visual and textual effects to create an immersive experience for the player. Through storytelling a player can play through the game, making their own choices in order to reach a certain ending. Personalization was tough to include given the restrictions of the project, there is some personalization involved in that there are multiple ways to reach different endings. The game was built using the Ren’Py engine, which is a widely used visual novel engine that helps you use words, images, and sounds to tell interactive stories that run on computers and mobile devices. Our game is therefore also multi-platform and can be played on PC, MAC, Linux, iOS and Android. A negative side of using the Ren’Py engine is that our game would have to be downloaded and installed in order to play it, as opposed to a web-based game. Not being able to play a game straight away will decrease the chances of people playing it. More documentation on Space Discovery can be found on my portfolio.
To conclude, I think there are revolutionary changes coming to the educational platform and this will greatly impact society. Concepts such as teachers and schools might become a thing of the past with education becoming more personalized and focused on the individual student. Games can play a role in this educational system, whether they are classified as serious or not. There still seem to be plenty of challenges ahead for serious games to be able to judge it’s role in the future of education.