Playing computers needn’t be seen as a waste of time that could be better spent learning — it can be a learning process itself if properly harnessed, says Helen Routledge.

Games-based learning or ‘serious games’ uses the power of computer games design techniques and mechanics to captivate and engage end-users for purposes other than pure entertainment.

Serious games use the underlying game mechanics and principles behind the incredibly successful commercial games market and aim to utilise these principles for education and training.

However, if you strip away all the techno-wizardry of the discussion and move to a psychological perspective, games are essentially highly experiential software applications which foster deep levels of cognitive activity, for example higher-level thinking skills such as conflict resolution or negotiation, emotional and physical responses.

Some of you may remember the growth of edutainment in the 1990s and may be asking how is this any different?

Edutainment used game play as a reward, or simply as a framework for the content.

What serious games aim to do is learn from the successful games industry and apply the engagement and behaviour mechanics that work, to education and training content.

Games are great at teaching you how to play and how to play well.

While we are playing, we are constantly making decisions, applying strategies, learning everything we can about the environment, and most importantly learning through failing and trying again.

Whether you are learning about how best to complete a stealth attack, remember a complex route through a maze, understanding binary code to crack open a lock, or combine the right mix of chemicals to complete a titration, games make you care about the tasks and instigate a desire to succeed.

While ensuring learners are engaged and motivated to keep trying until they succeed, the main purpose of a serious game is to develop new knowledge or skills and to ultimately produce a behaviour change.

This behaviour change is achieved through problem-based learning and constructivist learning strategies.

Serious games allow students to experience a problem first hand and make the decisions that feel most natural to them.

They can then see the impacts of their decisions on the game world and modify their strategy if required.

What’s most important is that games allow us to experiment and take risks we perhaps wouldn’t in the real world — we are then able to see why a decision did or didn’t work, receive immediate feedback and try alternative routes or methods to conquer a problem.

The benefit, beyond the initial impact is that these experiences may otherwise be impossible and/or undesirable to practice in the real world for reasons of cost, time, logistics and safety, such as chemistry lab practice or running a business.

The overarching structure of a serious game will focus on practice, repetition and mastery by using scenarios that introduce new concepts over time when the user is ready.

This approach leads to greatly improved effectiveness in the real world application of the learning.

However, it is important to remember that we do not learn in isolation, from one source. Rather, we learn continuously and from a number of sources and a number of events.

To that end, serious games should be considered as another option in a teacher’s toolkit and should be combined with other activities to extend learning.

A serious game should not be viewed as a silver bullet, as a one-stop shop for learning and development. Rather, it should be considered as a step along a journey, as a sandbox for applying knowledge and playing with concepts, ideas and approaches.

Helen Routledge, instructional systems design manager, Totem Learning Limited