Serious Games
Potential and Challenges

Games promote numerous skills, Photo: Peter Ziesche
Games promote numerous skills, Photo: Peter Ziesche | Photo (detail): Peter Ziesche, © Computerspielemuseum Berlin

Games promote intelligence and numerous skills. This has long been a consensus amongst educators, at least as regards children’s “analog” games. But even if this finding is still questioned with respect to computer games, particularly by proponents of an anthropological concept of man, there now exist many relevant studies that confirm the positive effect of digital games.

Games, including computer games, make you smarter! This is true not only of what are called “serious games”, games designed to bring about certain learning effects, but also of some entertainment games. For instance, studies have shown significant improvements in some regular players – in action games, which train above all hand-eye coordination and spatial perception, and in strategy games and games of skill, which promote problem solving abilities.

Learning success through fun with games

A study carried out by Alexandra and Wolfgang Lenhard with pupils at a special school gives a clear indication that the games, in this case a serious game, increase intelligence. Two classes were taught differently: one was given conventional teacher-centred teaching, the other instructed through a computer game specially designed for the learning material. After six weeks “an increase in intellectual capacity of an average from 90 IQ points before training to one of 101 points after” could be observed in the video game test group. By contrast, the comparison group showed no significant improvement.

Teaching skills is usually not an important consideration for producers of entertainment games. The idea behind them is that fun in playing will guarantee their economic success. But some game manufacturers have recognized that there is evidently a connection between fun and learning. For example, the company Valve has made available its entertainment game Portal 2, including level editors, to all interested schools and expressly invited teachers to use it for instruction – free of charge, by the way.

Motivation and sustainability in learning

By comparison to pure entertainment games, the development of serious games demands a high quality of design and implementation and a sensible means of evaluating their effects. The success of a serious game can’t be by sales figures measured alone. What is relevant is whether the manufacturer or the purchaser can actually obtain the designated effects – change in behaviour, successful imparting of knowledge or skills, or the improvement of motor and cognitive capacities. First of all, the immanent reward system of game challenges can be used to achieve motivation and sustainable development in learning. Moreover, intrinsic motivation, that is, the desire to do something for its own sake, can foster, for example, changes in behaviour, expansion of knowledge or improvement of motor skills. All in all, well designed serious games obtain not only results equivalent to those of traditional therapeutic methods, but also sometimes significantly superior ones.

Effects and problems

With all these positive effects, many studies have also emphasized the importance of the right game principle for successful application. In one study in which, among others, the well-known game Tetris was successfully used in trauma therapy, the other games had no effects whatever. This indicates that a game whose effectiveness is developed on the wrong premises fails to obtain the desired results. It could even bring about the opposite effect. But even when designers have chosen an appropriate game mechanism, there can still be unexpected results – for instance, when because of lacking or insufficient medical findings the psychological effect of the game is difficult to assess.

That the term “serious game” is not simply a synonym for good or sensible games is shown by the case of the computer game America’s Army, which the United States Army developed as a recruiting and propaganda tool. Even when a game actually obtains the desired effect, this does not mean that the effect is in accordance with the ethical principles of all cultures. It is therefore especially important not only to test the effect of a serious game but also to consider its meaningful use. Then games can be not only a useful supplement to other teaching aids, but also sometimes achieve significantly better results than other media.