Playing to Learn: Serious Games in Higher Ed

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Monday, May 10, 2021
By Marion Festing, Tobias Schumacher
Photo by: iStock/ozgurcankaya
Serious games offer fun and engaging alternatives to traditional teaching while still delivering meaningful learning experiences.

“For many years the conviction has grown upon me that civilization arises and unfolds in and as play,” writes Johan Huizinga in his book Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture. As academics who create and teach through serious games, we completely agree.

Humans all love to play games. Not only are games fun, but they also play a crucial role in the socialization, development, and learning process of children. “Learning through play” is even one of the key strategies to improving education under the 17 Sustainable Development Goals crafted by the United Nations.

This is where serious games come in. Their primary goal is not entertainment, but education. Because serious games are generally presented in a video format, they’re rapidly gaining in popularity thanks to the increasing digitization of education today.

Teaching Tools for the Classroom

Serious games bring four main benefits to the educational arena:

1. Games make learning fun and engaging. Serious games create more dynamic classrooms by breaking the traditional rigid teaching structure in which faculty deliver information through lectures while students passively receive knowledge. Serious games combine two important components: playfulness and interactivity. When the learning contents are seamlessly embedded into the game itself, students are motivated to learn.

Providing students with an enjoyable but profound learning experience was our goal when we started developing Moving Tomorrow–An Intercultural Journey in 2017. In this serious game, players learn the story of Runergy, a fictional company that has been praised as a beacon of sustainable entrepreneurship. Throughout the story, the players interact with different employees of Runergy in various countries, thereby experiencing and learning about the intricacies of intercultural management. The narrative of the game motivates students not only to continue playing, but also to look more deeply at the integrated learning contents. Because the learning process itself is interesting, students are more engaged.

a colorful screenshot from a video game showing employees clustered in a break room prepared to embark on some gossip
In Moving Tomorrow–An Intercultural Journey, students interact with various employees at a fictional company as a way to learn about intercultural management.

2. Games allow students to experience authentic situations. Exposure to real-life scenarios plays a central role in the learning process, but some situations can’t be recreated in the classroom because they’re costly, unethical, or simply impossible to simulate. However, a player in a serious game can become president of a nation, meet anyone in the world, tackle wicked problems, travel to every country imaginable, and even build a rocket and fly to the moon. As a result, serious games can provide learners with exposure to a broad range of realistic situations.

3. Games simplify complex tasks. Tasks that involve multiple steps or require complex skills are difficult to master using text alone. Serious games allow learners to successively practice and develop necessary skills as they progress from one level to the next. For instance, in our game, students first explore the properties and dynamics of group or organizational culture. Only then can they move on to learning about the more complex nature of national culture with all its potential and limitations.

Serious games have the added benefit of allowing learners to go through the levels at their own pace. This enables them to focus on the content they need to understand or the skills they are having difficulty acquiring.

4. Games integrate assessment and exercises. Because of the digital nature of serious games, students get immediate feedback. As they solve puzzles, make decisions, and hold conversations with other characters, players have to reflect on and apply the learning contents correctly to make progress. Instructors also are able to use the digital interface to assess and guide students through the learning journey.

Games of All Types

Like movies and books, serious games come in a variety of genres. There are strategy games such as PeaceMaker, where players have to make social, political, and military decisions aiming to alleviate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There are adventure or role-playing games like ours, where the players step into the shoes of a new employee and have to make decisions in a diverse business environment. And there are even online puzzle games such as Foldit, where players who solve puzzles actually help to advance scientific knowledge about diseases.

No specific type or genre of serious games is better than others. Instead, faculty can choose which game to use depending on what learning outcomes they want students to achieve.

No specific type or genre of serious games is better than others. Instead, faculty can choose which game to use depending on what learning outcomes they want students to achieve.

This raises the question of which skills can be taught through serious games. Using Bloom’s taxonomy of educational learning goals, we can differentiate between cognitive, affective, and behavioral learning outcomes. Cognitive learning encompasses knowledge and analytical competencies; affective or emotion-based learning refers to a student’s motivation to learn about or value a subject; and behavioral learning covers communication and negotiation skills.

The existing scientific evidence suggests that while serious games primarily target cognitive and affective learning outcomes, they also can teach behavioral competencies. For instance, when we tracked outcomes for our own game, we could see that players not only acquired knowledge about intercultural management, but also improved their behavioral competence when they interacted with individuals from other countries.

A Few Drawbacks

Despite all their advantages, serious games are not suitable for every class. There are three primary reasons:

First, they are costly to develop. To bring a game to life, designers need skills in graphic design, computer programming, music composition, voiceover narration, and story writing—and of course they also must have subject matter expertise and didactical knowledge. In addition, commercial video games, which often are created with tremendous budgets, set the standard for what constitutes a good product. While serious games don’t need to meet that standard, the bar is nonetheless rather high.

Second, some forms are still somewhat stigmatized. Many people perceive video games, especially, as being excessively violent or a waste of time. Although serious games have an entirely different purpose than conventional ones, the stigma surrounding other genres often still carries over to them.

Third, they require a somewhat different approach to teaching. Because all the major learning content can be embedded into the game, professors must take on more of a coaching role, leading students through discussions and reflection sessions that deepen understanding.

None of these obstacles should discourage faculty from using serious games. Professors don’t even have to develop their own, because many options already exist. And if they use these games to interact with students and support active learning, they can transform their classrooms.

A Closer Look

As an example of how a serious game can be brought into the classroom, we’ll explain how we embedded Moving Tomorrow into an intercultural management course. Our rationale was that the game would allow students to acquire knowledge about specific aspects of management and also to experiment with their behaviors in a safe environment.

Our game is composed of six different episodes that take about one hour each to complete. After each episode, we held discussions with our students to discuss what they had learned and to deepen the academic insights they had just unlocked. We gamified these debriefing sessions by using a competitive incentive structure. Groups of students were randomly assigned to articulate one of the academic insights of each episode. Students had to pitch the insights to their classmates by not only elaborating the theoretical foundation of the assigned insight, but also by identifying its personal, professional, and societal relevance.

While it is possible to assess and grade the gameplay of students, we consciously decided against doing so. We wanted to encourage a curious and carefree gaming experience, where students experiment without fearing consequences.

In order to keep the debriefing sessions engaging, we modified the instructions for each round of presentations. For instance, during one round, students had to integrate the gift of a Kinder Surprise egg into their presentations. At other times, each group had to act out the associated insight in a business situation or link it to an important social movement such as Black Lives Matter or Fridays for Future.

Throughout every debriefing session, we primarily acted as coaches, correcting misunderstandings or adding information to the group presentations. After each round, students voted on which pitch presentation—except their own—they liked the most, and groups received points accordingly. To motivate active participation, we let students know that, at the end of the course, those who collected the most points would receive a surprise gift that was related to culture, such as a guided tour to some of Berlin’s finest street art.

While it is possible to assess and grade the gameplay of students—for instance, by tracking the number of correct answers given and the speed at which games are completed—we consciously decided against doing so in this class. We wanted to encourage a curious and carefree gaming experience, where students were allowed to experiment without fearing consequences. Instead, we graded the oral participation throughout the debriefing sessions. We also administered a final exam, in which students had to apply the academic insights covered in the course to a practical problem or situation.

A Welcome Break

As educational institutions increasingly shift toward digitalization and virtual delivery of knowledge, serious games provide an excellent way for schools and professors to manage the shift. These games don’t just make learning more fun and engaging. They also offer a welcome break from traditional teaching structures. It’s time to get ready to play!

Moving Tomorrow–An Intercultural Journey was nominated for the German Computer Games Award (Deutscher Computerspielepreis), was a finalist in the 2019 International Business Learning Games Competition, and was the silver winner at the Reimagine Education Awards.

Marion Festing
Professor, Human Resource Management and Intercultural Leadership, ESCP Business School
Tobias Schumacher
PhD Student, ESCP Business School
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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