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Teaching and Learning Forum 2007 [ Refereed papers ]
Serious games: A problem, a solution, or a polariser?

Barnard Clarkson
School of Communications and Contemporary Arts
Chris Brook
School of Education
Edith Cowan University

Computer based games are increasingly being offered as a way to engage students better in their own education. Serious games are a branch of games with a strong educational focus, offered as a way to represent physical systems or fabricated spaces, and teach through immersion and role play. It is well known that games can engender high levels of engagement and build intuitive or sophisticated understandings about scientific or human phenomena. On one hand, serious games might prove to be a strategy that increases student motivation to become active participants in their own learning. On the other hand, despite these apparent advantages, some parents and even governments have, on occasions, successfully banned these games from learning settings (Smith, 2005; Squire, 2006b). The implication of such tensions appears to be that computer games have no serious place in education settings. Arguably any educational value is fortuitous, and simply a consequence of their complexity and potential for flexible usage, not unlike say, Logo. These conflicting views warrant further exploration. This presentation will present (at least) two sides of the argument, propose some criteria for identifying appropriate games and encourage more informed discussion regarding this divisive topic.

Games and diversity of opinion

Educational games, both digital and non-digital have long been employed in various forms to support learning (Squire, 2003). However, some individuals perceive that the very term 'game' trivialises its educational value. The term covers a wide grab bag, attracting wildly differing opinions. Even excluding shoot-em-ups like Doom (infamously the game of choice of the teenage shooters from Columbine School), still leaves a huge range of activities that seem to draw as much ire as admiration. A telling point is scored by Squire (2006), who describes an extremely school averse student whose teachers regarded him as lacking any social, collaborative or problem solving skills. At the same time he was spending more time playing online games than he was at school, and exhibited high levels of collaboration and problem solving over extended time periods as a competent team game player. Schools and tertiary institutions aspire to these same outcomes, he argues.

To combat the concern that games are not educational, the word 'serious' is often included when referring to educational games (eg., Rieber, 2001). Thompson (2006a) argues that serious games 'are uniquely good at teaching people how complex systems work.' He describes some with political agendas, like Food Force, A Force More Powerful, Darfur is Dying, Under Ash, September 12 and Madrid. Ironically the new moniker sounds defensive, more oxymoron than effective descriptor. Nevertheless, serious games are now attracting significant research efforts, points out Squire (2006a, p. 1): 'Research projects such as the Gaming X program at Stanford, the Games-to-Teach Project, the Quest Atlantis Project, the Serious Games Initiative, and the Education Arcade are exploring how commercial games can be used in classrooms'.

A traditional distinction allowing games into classrooms was between designing and playing games. This justified the classroom use of software like GameMaker (see www.gamemaker.nl), where students could apply their intellectual skills to an authentic design process. The serious games movement appears to be more about learning from play than from design, and it seems to be the use of play in schools that is problematic. It is easy to see the irony in this, nevertheless in the absence of persuasive research findings some educators and governments appear ready to ban the use of electronic games to support teaching and learning. Much of the argument about games plays out in the popular domain and not just the academic literature, hence a reference to less academic sources is relevant.

As reported in the popular media (see www.chinaview.cn) the government of China has recently banned 50 electronic games including The Sims 2. The implication is that building harmless people and families incapable of overt violence like the Sims and letting them interact might not be the innocent activity the designers planned. What did the Chinese government see in the Sims that was not so innocuous (Smith, 2005)? An obvious first suspect is based perhaps on cultural difference. This is confirmed in newspaper reports that suggest the reason the Chinese government banned The Sims 2, was ostensibly because it failed to contribute to a 'good environment' for their children (Smith, 2005). At the same time a Western reporter in 2004 described it as harmless, '...the player is virtually incapable of committing any act of violence whatsoever.'(Wadhams, 2004). Actually, complex activities like games provide design choices that simpler activities do not. No tutorial on addition will allow me to wall a Sim inside a 'house' without food or water and let them die. Is this not an act of violence?

That a supposedly peaceful game of this nature could evoke strong reactions, for whatever reason, is an indicator of the tensions that predictably arise when activities that seek realism, like games and simulations, are used to reflect the lived in world. Do complex tools provide too much choice? Do they appeal to all genders and ages equally, or are they skewed in a way that makes them fatally flawed as an educational tool? Regardless of the positioning of games, these are issues worth pursuing. They are relevant for educators whether in the school or post secondary system and warrant investigation. The issues are not about the lack of an 'R' or 18+ rating in Australia (under the Office of Film and Literature Classification) and thus if there are no 'adult games' arguably there are no 'serious games'; nor does the breadth of opinion alone seem anything more than a cause for careful attention. The authors contend that there are issues around 'educational value' that are some of the cause for deeper intellectual unease.

Serious value versus educational value of games

Many of these games make their underlying purpose explicit or at least discoverable, but not all do. Sometimes even revealing the 'true' purpose may undermine its value, and this may be a dilemma in an educational setting where outcomes are increasingly expected to be explicit.

Mostly teachers expect students of any age to appreciate that there is a major and identifiable purpose for any activity they undertake. This has been one of the key tenets of most modern education systems (Dewey, 1915), and is yet is often broken by the games genre. Perhaps the more abstruse or conflicted a game's purpose, the more likely differing opinions will form around it?

In some way cultural difference might explain why some games are not well suited to certain settings, but it does not appear to explain why the use of computer games to support learning polarises opinion so well. One reason may revolve around the fact that games are open ended activities and players may choose unintended options. For example can you design a perfectly peaceful Sims world, or will there always be possibilities to trapping a Sim and watch them starve to death? Is a spray can just for painting, a tool of social comment or a cause of graffiti? Peaceful tools can be used in non-peaceful ways, and distinguishing between the tool and the user of the tool is an example of a philosophically rich domain - arguably another good intellectual challenge for educators to grasp, not retract from.

Regardless of how games cause polarisation, it is evident that more than simply cultural differences lead to a lack of understanding. Ironically, games have been used to teach better understanding about differences between cultures. In a popular game (PeaceMaker) designed to simulate the lived in world, the user must choose the role of either the Israeli Prime Minister or the Palestinian President and engage in the decision making of those leaders. This game and others are claimed to be effective ways to teach players about the issues driving many of the Middle East conflicts (Thompson, 2006).

Jenkins & Hinrichs (2004) argue that games are a compelling device:

...games have the capability to drastically change scale, or take the player to environments they normally could not enter, potentially leveraging the beautiful and surrealistic nature of science and allowing players to visualise abstract scientific phenomena (e.g. Supercharged, Replicate) (p. 1) Despite this claim, some members of the educational community voice considerable opposition to the use of computer games to support learning. Their reasons seem varied, and will be considered shortly, but an important factor is the milieu in which the games are increasingly available.

Games and society

The serious games movement seeks to justify its approach by pointing to economic and social factors. They argue that games and society are changing, and there is a need to acknowledge the significance of this shift.

The serious games movement regularly quote the financial trends as support for their case (eg., Hoestetter, 2002; Squire, 2003), and the numbers are impressive. For example, Deloitte & Touche predict that there will be a sixfold rise in 'game compliant' (games machines and game-able PDAs) machines to 2.6 billion by the year 2010. (Wired News, 2004). This figure suggests that it is reasonable to assume that the majority of students have access to game compliant technologies.

Even the free United Nations game that helps people understand the difficulties of dispensing aid to war zones, Food Force, has been downloaded by four million players, a number to rival chart busting commercial hits like Halo or Grand Theft Auto (Thompson, 2006).

In social terms, today's students are increasingly game players. Hoestetter (2002) claims out that the average student will spend 10,000 hours gaming by end of their school career, a figure that rivals the actual time spent at school. Also evident is a generational change of graduates. This new generation of game playing youngsters have an appetite for risk, a willingness to experiment and a high degree of comfort in teams. Beck & Wade (2004) argue this is changing business. More importantly they suggest that the skills typically developed in gaming including risk taking, team work and problem solving are often sought as outcomes from schooling.

Despite the apparent better level of student access and the supposition that the objectives of serious games often reflect those of educators, the polarity of opinion regarding the value of computer games in education continues.

Why do games polarise opinion so much?

Since computer games with an educational intent are becoming increasingly common it seems timely to ask some questions. Firstly, what is it about 'games as educational tools' that is believed by some individuals to seriously bad while others consider them to be seriously good? Why is it that computer games are often associated with bifurcated views? Is this simply a defining characteristic of the genre? Better still, are there some characteristics we can identify which allow us to differentiate 'better' games and establish some common ground?

Obvious initial questions for an observer of this polarisation are that games may be displacing something in the curriculum that is less contentious, and perhaps we should be concerned at such a loss? Consider authentic activities as educational tools; these activities reflect the real world, provide realistic challenges and leave the students with a product. It seems possible that culturally appropriate computer games developed as authentic activities provide some middle ground.

Finally a fruitful focus would seem to need to consider the many concepts of reality. As a game player, I may feel that the sounds, bullets, gameplay and blood when playing Doom are realistic and represent some sort of virtuality, but not one I ever intend to visit in my 'real' reality. Similarly I may feel there is much realism in the way I'm required to negotiate the issues of pollution, urbanisation and human nature whilst playing a simulation like Exploring the Nardoo. The virtuality of the Nardoo River connects with my lived experience in different ways to the gloomy buildings and rapid gunfights of Doom. Thus there are some qualitative differences between the realism offered by a realtime game, and the realism of an authentic simulation which the authors argue can start to explain, say, the confusion that parents feel when told that 'games are good'.

Games and their types

Rieber (2001, p. 5) talks simply of the connections between play, games and learning and especially 'serious play'. 'I like the oxymoronic sound to this phrase - it sounds contradictory'. This conflicted characteristic is reflected in many aspects of the gaming domain. Some light can be shed on this issue by exploring different types of games and the settings in which they are used. Again the contrast with simulations will be used to provide some clarification of the issues.

We propose that there are some significant distinguishing features of serious games, but that these strengths might also be the very factors that challenge the applicability of games in educational settings. To investigate these differences, it is important to understand what distinguishes the variety of games. Firstly Jenkins (2004) distinguishes four types. Some example games are listed without description after each type so those who recognise them may find confirmation of their understanding, but knowledge of these games is not critical to understand the arguments we are making here. Jenkin's game types are:

These are often compelling games with authentic settings. Whether they are investigating physical characteristics (eg., Cuckoo Time!) or human ones (eg., Darfur is Dying), students can increase their understanding of the world by participating in and visualising otherwise abstract activities. A challenge to the idea of identifying distinguishing features is addressed, perhaps whimsically, by Reiber (2001, p. 5):
In a field so fond of design principles, such as ours, I've suggested a simple design principle for play: "look for ways to trigger or coax play behaviour in people then nurture and cultivate it once it begins, just as one looks for ways to light a candle followed by both protecting and feeding the flame."
There are characteristics of both simulations and games in these more serious games described above. This distinction warrants further exploration, but it is important to acknowledge that there are some similar characteristics already identified by serious game designers. For example, Squire et al. (2003, p. 19) suggests seven design principles for 'next generation digital gaming':
  1. Design educational action games by turning simulations into simulation games.
  2. Move from parameters to 'power ups' ('for the uninitiated, a device used in platform games to adjust some trait of the character or their worlds').
  3. Design game contexts by identifying contested spaces;
  4. Identify opportunities for transgressive play (eg., breaking the rules).
  5. Using information to solve complex problems in simulated environments.
  6. Provide choices and consequences in simulated worlds.
  7. Differentiate roles and distribute expertise in multiplayer games.
These principles are more detailed than Rieber's in their intent. They seem to be highlighting some key distinctions between simulations and simulation games: Simulations, they argue, might have an authenticity to them, but lack the ability to engage the new generation of 'unmotivated and hyper wired learners'(p. 17). We will argue there are deeper differences, important to good educational activities, including making the intended outcome transparent (eg., Herrington, Oliver, & Reeves, 2002), having a 'credible goal' or output rather than simply having fun (though we are the first to agree how useful that can be), and learning to collaborate.

Hiding the purpose

Arguably one of the obvious differences between games and most other educational activities is the way a game's underlying purpose is sometimes hidden behind its activities.

Does making its agenda clear also make a game less or more effective? What measures do we have? This is a non-trivial question, and the more sophisticated the game and the more morally subtle the game play, the less likely easy answers will be found. Without being perverse, it is also true that easy answers may not be what are important. Consider the reactions reported by the creator of Peacemaker, who showed the game to representatives form the Israeli and Palestinian communities:

He found that they were most interested in playing as their own "side." But when he pushed them to switch positions they developed a more nuanced sense of why the other side acted as it did. In Qatar several people told him that "they kind of understood more the pressures the Israeli prime minister has." (Thompson, 2006)
The end result was also interesting - Israeli players complained about the bulldozing of ('their') Arab villages; Palestinians felt the game ought to more clearly reward the use of 'subtle' measures. Then, he found an interesting consequence:
Peacemaker (which was designed before Hamas's electoral victory or the recent Middle East eruption of conflict) inspires an unusual kind of debate: an argument about how rule changes can affect society. 'That sort of complex thing is precisely what you can do with a game,' [the game's designer] said. (Thompson, 2006)
The apparent aim of the game Peacemaker might be less obvious than the title implies. Thus, we propose that a lack of explicit purpose as a key characteristic that may undermine the value of a game when intended as a learning tool. If the 'real' purpose is not clear to the educator planning to choose it, how will they make an informed judgement? Consider the contrast to authentic activities, which make their intended purpose very clear.

An important observation is that traditionally many games have not had a clearly expressed overarching purpose, and we argue that this lack of clarity undermines the value of such a game in 'game as learning' mode. It would be wrong to say this clarity is not evident already in some cases. For example some of the politically directed games described above were clear about their purpose. Perhaps the new stream of games for learning - serious games - will attempt to take the best of both games and simulations in an educational sense. This may address the concerns of some educators and parents, who might otherwise discard them or seek to ban them.

Example games with unwritten purpose

Any act of communication carries multilevel meaning (Devito, 1992) and a game, which is an authored product, is no different. If cartoonist and author Stan Lee (creator of Spider-Man) can represent the human condition by giving his superheroes an underlying 'flawed humanity' and have a deeper purpose than simply 'fighting evil' (Wikipedia, 2006), then writers of games might equally have a unwritten purpose. However, how explicit should that purpose be?

Consider Chinese Paladin, a hugely popular online game played by millions around the world. At a keynote Ed-Media address McFarlane (2006a) introduced Jingtian, a 19-year old boy; Xuejian, grand daughter of a powerful merchant; and Longkui, a 1000-year old ghost. She showed that the ending of the game is partly decided by players' empathy for female characters in the game. What is never evident to players, but was illustrated vividly to conference attendees, was that more effective responses were those that offered to defend and protect Xuejian, not those that gave her the chance to reflect on or 'understand' her circumstances (McFarlane, 2006b). So being a good listener was not as important as being a faithful and unquestioning defender of the female gender, regardless of the issue. Some observers could characterise this as a more Asian than a western approach to social relations. Thus the underlying purpose was not evident in the game and is not part of any published materials to do with the game. This represents a strong cultural influence in underlying gaming design, and may be connected to the decision of the Chinese government to ban The Sims 2 - due arguably to differing cultural values. Such cultural bias might be considered a factor that limits that use of serious games to support learning. However, authentic activities are also subject to the interpretation of the lived in world, an interpretation that is heavily influenced by culture.

A second game was designed to teach players about project management and building houses in the US (Squire, 2006b). The winner successfully completes their houses on time and on budget meeting all their obligations. What is not described in this game sponsored by the Master Builders Association in the USA is that they are trying to reduce the amount of litigation associated with home building. Whether this is a desirable aim or not, the fact that it was an unwritten purpose that could be construed as subterfuge making it a less desirable 'game as learning' activity. Not all activities make their ultimate purpose clear, and this can be perfectly appropriate and 'realistic'. This may undermine its value as a fair, equitable and easily assessed activity in an educational setting, however. It may not be the realism of a game as much as factors like the explicitness of purpose or the integrity underlying a game that raises its value in educational settings.

Identifying other criteria for serious games

What other factors are there, which distinguish these various pedagogic devices? We propose, in the limited space left, to start discussion by identifying four factors - including clarity of purpose or integrity - that help distinguish games from authentic activities. Firstly, games often aim for realism of renditions, or levels of visual fidelity, where simulations often consider intellectual fidelity. Secondly, both require longer term levels of play to achieve their goals, but often games have a goal which involves participation in the activity, at a process level, whereas simulations usually have a clear outcome in mind and often end with a real product as an intended result. Thirdly, simulations traditionally support collaborative rather than competitive structures where games are only now starting to blend these structures. This suggests that as well as the factor already identified, namely Explicitness of purpose, one could add the topics of Level of Immersion/fidelity, Goal and Level of collaboration. This table attempts to highlight the key differences identified in this paper:

Table 1: Distinguishing characteristics between realistic games and simulations

Realistic gamesSimulations
1 PurposeSubtle or hidden, usu. deducible; presented as significant/realistic personal challenge.Always explicit; real world ('authentic') significance, presented as realistic challenge.
2 ImmersionEntertainment and play; seeks sensory or physical authenticity; requiring a suspension of disbelief.More intellectual than physical; even social realism, but rarely time critical; 'intellectual authenticity'.
3 GoalFun, process oriented, skills based.Outcome, product oriented; creating a product for future use.
4 CollaborationTradition of competition now giving way to increasing levels of collaboration.Collaboration assumed and integrated.

Note that good educational activities can occur in many settings, and each and every activity referred to in each cell may contribute effectively to successful learning of some type. Nevertheless, it may not be optimal to design an activity simply to address a single cell or column. Our thesis is that serious games are starting to blend divergent factors such as those contained in both columns into their design. For example as well as having a goal with elements of entertainment, the game Darfur is Dying allows the user at the end to send real emails to real people. This is a little more outcome oriented goal than most 'normal' games would address, and perhaps indicates how a serious game is attempting to blend goal characteristics of both types of activity.

We do not intend to portray current games designers as ignoring these principles; indeed a recent Squire's (2006b) article is about disenchanted students designing historically accurate settings for other game players in Civilisations III and IV. This designing process is laudable even if it breaks Squire's professed principle of game playing rather than game designing identified in the opening paragraphs. Nevertheless these factors warrant elaboration and further intellectual treatment. It is hoped that they will contribute to rich conversations in the appropriate forum when this paper is presented.


Serious games are part of the trend toward 'games as learning'. We have attempted to highlight the possibility that 'better' games are incorporating the characteristics of both traditional simulations and realistic games. We argue that a merging process is becoming evident, and has important educational benefits, as the better serious games are appropriating the characteristics of good educational activities like simulations. Some of the ways games work, like having a hidden purpose, is understandable - even critical - but lacks the classic 'up front honesty' of a more authentic educational activity.

A major challenge is that some of these differences may be insurmountable; that the overlapping process can never be complete; and that some of the community concern about software like games is helpful, even when mis-reported in the popular press. Nevertheless this paper contends that future games design may attempt to merge multiple divergent factors like those of Table 1 in its intentional design, and this might help both reduce the tensions felt by non-educator groups and identify the characteristics of serious games a little more explicitly.


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Authors: Barnard Clarkson, School of Communications and Contemporary Arts
Chris Brook, School of Education
Edith Cowan University, Bradford Street, Mt Lawley WA 6050, Australia
Email: b.clarkson@ecu.edu.au, c.brook@ecu.edu.au

Please cite as: Clarkson, B. and Brook, C. (2007). Serious games: A problem, a solution, or a polariser? In Student Engagement. Proceedings of the 16th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 30-31 January 2007. Perth: The University of Western Australia. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2007/refereed/clarkson.html

Copyright 2007 Barnard Clarkson and Chris Brook. The authors assign to the TL Forum and not for profit educational institutions a non-exclusive licence to reproduce this article for personal use or for institutional teaching and learning purposes, in any format (including website mirrors), provided that the article is used and cited in accordance with the usual academic conventions.

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