When Gaming Gets 'Serious,' Learning Opportunities Abound

Jul 24, 2015

This week, game designers, developers and educators gathered at Carnegie Mellon University for the Serious Play Conference, where the focus was on "serious” gaming, or games used for training and teaching.

Pittsburgh-based game designer Jesse Schell, CEO of Schell Games, demonstrated his company’s award-winning game "Water Bears."

In the game, water bears are animals about a millimeter long that live in moss all over the world. They can survive most environments by expelling water from their bodies. Once they are re-hydrated, they come back to life. To play, users touch and drag pieces of pipe together directing water over the bear to hydrate it.

“Part of what we do is show you the achievements you’ve made in the realm of systems thinking," Schell said. "We worked with specialists in the domain of systems thinking to understand the elements of systems thinking and work those into the puzzle."

The game is considered a “serious game” as it is primarily used for learning, not just entertainment. Industries such as defense, education, health care and scientific exploration use such games for training.

Sue Bohle, conference director, said the wordplay is an important distinction.

“Games that are designed to help kids learn or games that are used for training today have to have the element of play in order to engage the person and make them more interested in learning,” she said.

Schell said his company is developing a virtual reality component to "Water Bears" to incorporate play in learning.

“Getting into the business of educational games, that has been kind of a gradual transition for us. We used to be entirely focused on entertainment, but we started to see what an opportunity it was,” he said.

Bohle said educational gaming is still a young industry. Designers and developers are trying to figure out how to make games schools can use, and teachers are trying to figure out if those games make sense in their classroom. 

In the 1970 book, "Serious Games," author Clark Abt said that, when reduced to its essence, a game seeks to achieve an objective.

“We are concerned with serious games in the sense that these games have an explicit and carefully thought-out educational purpose and are not intended to be played primarily for amusement,” he said.

Abt’s book focused on educational board and card games.

And then came the era of computer games like "The Oregon Trail," a game popular in social studies classrooms of the 1980s and '90s that taught school children the realities of pioneer life on the trail.

Grade school teacher Marianne Malmstrom said content games similar to "The Oregon Trail" and the board games Abt wrote about serve a purpose.

“And I do believe there is a place in school for content games and there are some companies making really great content games," she said. "Most kids will tell you that education games stink. That’s a polite word for it, they don’t use that word for it, they are a little bit more graphic."

She advocates teaching with systems kids are already using, like "Minecraft," a computer game in which users build worlds out of 3D cubes. The game was released in 2009 as entertainment with no specific goals to accomplish. Malmstrom says that openness leaves room for her lesson plans.

“A big misunderstanding people have about 'Minecraft' is those kids are just wasting a ton of time," she said. "But if you took the time to look at the projects, you would be astounded at how really difficult some of the things the kids are doing are. The engineering, the wiring, the red stone, the coding. So it goes to interest and motivation. The kids power through that and they teach each other.”

Malmstrom said teachers are starting to buy into games as an educational tool, but only when it works.

“We have a tendency to always pick the shiny new thing; it’s STEM this week or games this week," she said. "You know, that’s our job as professionals, to find what works for our kids and our classrooms.”

Malmstrom said students learn on their own, and educators have to embrace that in order to keep classrooms relevant.