Learning by Playing Serious Games

Playing Serious Games - text over abstract background

This article was originally published at UniversityXP and is re-published in Ludogogy by permission of the author.

Serious games are games created from the ground up for teaching and learning. These also include games created for a social purpose outside of the traditional executions of games for entertainment.

Serious games can be incredible tools for teaching, learning, and education. They help players learn experientially though play in order to put concepts into use. Serious games provide learners with the opportunities to transform experience into knowledge.

So how should educators use serious games for teaching and learning? What are some serious games that exist now? How can educators integrate serious games into their curriculum, syllabi, and lesson plans?

This article will review and define serious games. A brief history of serious games will be shared along with some of the best reasons for using serious games in teaching and learning. The impact and ramifications of using serious games in the classroom will be discussed as well as the role that educators play in integrating serious games in their practice.

Several historical serious games will be discussed in detail and include war games and the Kriegsspiel; business simulations; and other aspects of gamification; games-based learning and applied games. Serious game play constitutes experiential learning. Therefore, active debriefing will be discussed in depth and a detailed approach will be shared for how educators can and should integrate these games into their teaching practice.

What are serious games?

Simply put serious games are games that are created for purposes other than entertainment. We may have first discovered gaming from the fun and excitement that we derive from it. Serious games take these outcomes and pairs it with learning outcomes in order to help the player and learner achieve a specific educational outcome. Therefore, serious games’ primary objective is not to entertain the player but rather to help them achieve a specific learning outcome.

In more granular terms, serious games are meant to promote some sort of behavior change from their learning outcomes. This change can come about through applications of learning that arise from play. Otherwise it could arise from players’ empathetic perspectives of others’ simulated through game play. In any case, serious games ultimately improve players, learners, and users through play.

Current applied serious games are used and implemented through an applied curricular methodology. This means that serious games aren’t played in a vacuum. Rather, serious games are used in tandem with play, review, discussion, and debriefing in order to help players achieve their learning outcomes.

How were serious games created?

Games have been around for thousands of years. Serious games came about from the development of using games as teaching and learning tools. Serious games go back hundreds of centuries prior to the more popular use of games-based learning for teaching, training, and education.

Some of the earliest games like chess were often relied upon in order to teach principles of warfare.  We see more contemporary applications of this with games like America’s Army which served as both an abstraction of infantry warfare as well as a marketing and recruitment tool.

But why were games first relied upon as tools for teaching and learning? It’s because games states are more easily provide an overview and abstraction of different simulations and scenarios. Reality possesses many details and fine distinctions that may be irrelevant to the situation at hand. However, the player experience of games provides a specific, detailed, and nuanced approach to teaching and learning through different activities, challenges, tasks, and assignments often under the guise of game terms like missions, scenes, and levels.

This specific approach – combined with a more accessible appeal of games – made them excellent tools for teaching and learning. Especially since games could be as an experiential form of education since knowledge is created from game play rather than shared didactically through lectures, seminars, or videos.

Why use serious games?

Games, game design, and game development have a storied and intertwined history with serious games. However, serious games also excel with catering to the player experience. That’s because these games are experienced at a pace and involvement at the discretion of the player.

All of this is due to player interaction, feedback, the feedback loop, and intrinsic motivation. The combination of these factors entice, empower, and enable students to continue playing, engaging, and experimenting with games in an experiential feedback loop. Such an engagement makes games an evolving and customizable tool for player learning.

Lastly, a serious game doesn’t always need to be played seriously. Serious games can still elicit fun and enjoyment from players. Doing so ensures that the player experience is a positive one, which supports and enables future play.

Serious games’ impact on learning

Additionally, serious games’ have a positive impact on learning, motivation, and learning motivation when applied by educators to learners.  They are able to more fully and immersively demonstrate concepts and applications in ways that traditional didactic education cannot.

This is often most realized in cognitive and affective learning outcomes. These are often most closely related to traditional educational learning outcomes that change attitudes, motivation, and values of students. However, serious games can also teach behavioral competencies. The results of which also change learners’ behaviors when using serious games for teaching and learning.

There are downsides to using serious games in the classroom. Often, students who are accustomed to playing many games for entertainment will focus more on game play and game elements rather than the outcomes that such game play provides.  However, educators can use player involvement as a way to continue to spur interest and intrinsic motivation for learners to engage and play.

Ultimately, serious games represent another tool for educators to use and adapt for the classroom. The results of which emphasize the development and more widespread use of gaming for teaching and learning.

Teaching with serious games

Often, one of the more salient aspects to teaching with serious games is that they break the traditional rigid teaching structure of didactic education.   This is where educators present information for students to consume and ultimately develop understanding.  We see this most frequently in a lecture based classroom.

Serious games approach teaching and learning outside of a didactic approach, and instead encourages learners and players to experiment and play. This results in a process where players develop the necessary skills in order to progress in the game and ultimately achieve the designer’s and educators’ outcomes.

Serious games achieve this by combining learning strategies, curricular structures, and formal game elements in order to teach specific skills for players to create their own knowledge. Here, serious games represent conceptual and mechanical relationships within a dynamic environment that can be changed and augmented by the player thorough their own agency. The results of which end when players achieve stated learning outcomes.

Serious games can and do incorporate a wide spectrum of abstraction versus fidelity. However, some of the most popular serious games rely heavily on content developed from realistic situations. This is due to the need for learners to more easily identify and apply outcomes to necessary applications.

Despite this, all great games and serious games encourage and influence the development of cognitive flow for learners. The creation of this flow state is a result of the observation and keen development of relational awareness between game elements and their outcomes. Those relationships can be highly representative of their real world counterparts. However, with serious games they never explicitly have to be.

Ultimately serious games are meant to elicit a change in learners’ perceptions, applications, and outcomes of their learning. Therefore, it’s important that serious games actively include and represent the learners themselves in an identifiable form (or avatar) so that the relationship between themselves and their expected outcomes and applications are more clearly defined.

Wargames and Kriegsspiel

One of the earliest and most widespread applications of serious games for teaching and learning was the Kriegspeil (or “wargame” in German). With a storied history, the Kriegsspiel was used to teach military leaders tactics and strategies by representing armies and military units in scaled miniature on a physical table top. Its military applications goes beyond what can be contained in this article; however its use of abstraction and simulation is what cemented its future use for teaching and learning.

It’s success was great enough that officer training often involved frequent use of the Kriegsspiel for teaching and learning military and combat doctrine in the 19th century. Despite this, the Kriegsspiel was not run the same way we think about other table top games and educational games that we know and use today. Rather, players’ actions were arbitrated by a referee, umpire, or judge who collected and collated player actions in order to resolve them within the game. This role is most similarly seen with the “dungeon master” of table top role playing games like Dungeons and Dragons.

Fidelity was on the side of Kriegsspiel, as further iterations of the game took into account other actions and activities which could befall military leaders in actual live conflict. Those included surprise attacks, supporting lines, and point defense.

The Kriegsspiel has gone onto spur multiple successors for other table top war games such as Warhammer 40k, Star Wars Imperial Assault, and Star Trek Attack Wing to name a few. Likewise, the use of an impartial third party to moderate and referee games can be seen in many iterations of modern live role-playing games.

This war gaming simulation’s humble beginnings has indeed grown and evolved past its original intent for training military leaders for the conflicts they are yet to fight. However, the focus on simulation and fidelity is one that we see in other aspects of serious games such as business simulations.

Business simulations

Businesses often rely on simulations for teaching and learning because of its high fidelity to real world and application and problem solving. Simulations represent the closet possible thing to reality without the loss or risk of actually carrying out business actions.

Therefore, these business simulations exist within the realm of active and experiential learning like other forms of games-based learning. As such, participants in business simulations are both behaviorally and cognitively active as they play and experiment with the simulation in order to test and attempt to accomplish different outcomes.

Perhaps one of the most common business simulations is that of the Stock Market Game which many high school students participate in while learning about economics. The Stock Market Game makes it so that individual students can try their hand at investing in different publicly traded companies in order to determine if their predictions about future business success pan out.

As such, simulations such as these can be highly effective at engaging and motivating students due to their high touch and experiential approach. Here, students experience an active and closely tied feedback loop to their initial input and investments in order to see the ultimate effect on their portfolios.

Business simulations grow and evolve from the fidelity provided in the Kriegsspiel as a way for learners to experience different problems and scenarios in which they must apply decision making and problem solving methodology to overcome the challenge. The results of which encompass specified learning outcomes established by the instructor in order for students to achieve these goals.

Gamification, games-based learning, and applied games

While the Kriegsspiel represents one of earliest uses of simulation for teaching and training; and business simulations represent commercial applications of the same for business outcomes; the breadth and scope of games for learning is much wider than these two applications.

Games-based learning includes using established games for teaching and learning as well as the use; creation; and implementation of serious games for education and development. These applications don’t need to be narrowly applied such as with war games and business case studies. Rather, aspects of gamification and games-based learning can apply the use of these practices in other venues.

Such is the case with serious games that were created with outcomes other than entertainment in mind. There have been many cases of such games; but perhaps the most popular and successful of which include the following.

Darfur is Dying was first released in April 2006 and represented the journalistic spirit of exposing the truth behind the humanitarian crisis of the war in Darfur. The game provided a platform that reached over 800,000 players in five months and approaches social change through the medium of games.

Likewise the game World without Oil’s tagline: “Play it – before you live it” provided a simulation of how a future oil crisis might affect individuals by representing changes that may occur in their area. This was an alternate reality game (ARG) that lasted for 32 days between April and June 2007. It provided the very real social impact of helping individual players anticipate problems of a world without oil.

Lastly, the game Superbetter was the brainchild of Jane McGonigal. After suffering a concussion in 2009, she experienced the negative consequences of depression and suicidal thoughts. While recovering, McGonigal created the game “Jane the Concussion Slayer” which she designed to help treat her condition (as well as help keep her occupied). Building off of the success of this game she renamed it Superbetter and applied it to help other people achieve their own goals and overcome obstacles.

Active debriefing

Educators are free to choose how they use games, gamification, serious games, learning games, or games-based learning. However, the application of any of these approaches requires learning through experience or experiential learning. As such, educators should implement a practice of active debriefing no matter which method they choose to pursue. The results of active debriefing enables participants and players to connect activities and lessons they learned through game play with opportunities in the outside world.

Active debriefing is important because it requires individuals to focus on their own beliefs, assumptions, and values that arose from their experiences playing the game. It also requires individuals to manage how they may defensively react when re-examining and re-evaluating their own belief and value systems in order to make sense of these new experiences.

Ultimately the goal of instructor lead active debriefing is meant to ensure that learning is happening at an individual level. Specifically that experience is transformed into knowledge that can be shared and built upon. Therefore, active debriefing is best implemented at the end of an activity or experiences such as game play or games-based learning activities.

While more adult learners might be empowered to lead active debriefing sessions on their own; instructors may choose to rely on the following questions to help structure and guide their own active debriefing activities. Those sample questions include:

-What happened?

-Does what happened matter?

-How did you feel?

-Does this remind you of anything else you’ve experienced? If so, what and why?

-What have you learned?

-What will you do with what you’ve learned?


This article covered how to use serious games for teaching, learning, education, and development. It began with an overview of what serious games are as well as a short history of how they have been used in the past for teaching and learning.

The merits of using serious games for teaching were provided as well as the kind of impact that they can have on learners and instructors alike. Specific steps for teaching with serious games were discussed as well as some detailed historical examples. Those included war games and the Kriegsspiel, business simulations, and various applications of games-based learning and applied games.

This article closed on the process of active debriefing and how instructors should use it when paired with serious games for teaching and learning. Games-based learning is an experiential form of learning. Therefore, the active debriefing cycle is paramount in helping students make sense of their experience a well as connect specific game outcomes with targeted learning outcomes.

This article was about playing serious games.  To learn more about gamification, check out the free course on Gamification Explained.

If you have enjoyed this article – consider getting yourself lifetime access to Dave’s Games-Based Learning Digital Library containing all of the content from the past two Games-Based Learning Virtual Conferences; past webinars and courses he’s created; as well as his complete back catalogue of articles; podcast episodes; and videos. And more content is being added all the time.

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Educator / Designer / Researcher at Dave Eng Design
Dr. Dave Eng is an intellectual and creative educator, designer, and researcher who focuses on games, theory, and technology.

Dave studies applied games and teaches others how to use games for education and learning. Dave serves as a faculty member at New York University’s School of Professional Studies (https://www.sps.nyu.edu/professional-pathways/faculty/20495-dave-eng.html).

Dave hosts the podcast Experience Points (https://www.buzzsprout.com/855127) and consults at University XP (https://www.universityxp.com/community) on games-based learning. He also leads the Games-Based Learning Alliance: a community of individuals who use games for teaching, training, learning, and development.

Dave is a founder of Banditos Gaming (https://www.banditosgaming.com/): a registered 501(c)(3) social and educational non-profit organization that promotes play, community development, and learning through games. His interests include learning theory, technology, and games.

Find out more at www.davengdesign.com

Fun Fact: He has been seasick in every time zone.
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