Serious Games: How to make them and why you should be
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
Serious games or learning based games are are a form of digital media that are focused on education rather than entertainment not to say learning can’t be entertaining! This blog will focus on how to make a serious game including helpful approaches and items to stay away from when developing a serious game. I will also be going over why I believe there should be more of a focus on making serious games.
How do you make a serious game
When first starting your project you need to have a clear goal in mind on what you want to teach to the player. A lot of research needs to be done about this topic as it's important to have a full understanding of the topic. It is also important to understand what topics do well in certain genres to maximize the player’s motivation which coincides with improving their retention of what they're about to learn.
Obviously, when learning something, the player must have a drive to initially get the player invested including ongoing approaches to help keep the player engaged well enough to learn and retain the knowledge you're serious game is trying to teach. To help motivate the player, you must have an understanding of human cognition and keep in mind the two types of human motivation, intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation is having the player be motivated internally by wanting to master the game or find meaning in playing it. Extrinsic motivation is having the player be motivated externally by leaderboards and achievements. Nowadays, almost all games have some form of reward system such as the use of leaderboards and achievements which correlate to providing extrinsic motivation. This helps the player feel continuously motivated to play the game and collect cool titles or achievements to boast to friends about what they have earned. However, it is important that the goal is to have the player be intrinsically motivated.
Time limits may just be the worst thing to add to a game where you're trying to teach the player a topic. Have you ever been given a book and told you have 30 minutes to learn chapters 1 to 4 followed by a test to see if you’ve retained the information? No? Of course not because that's absurd and that would not help the player retain the knowledge after taking the test. Adding time limits to serious games is something that will put the player off and cause unneeded stress when trying to learn. The best thing is to give the player the time they need since it takes different amounts of time for an individual to learn a certain topic.
Rewards & Feedback
It's always nice when doing a quest to be rewarded with some cool item or a large sum of gold that can be used/spent anywhere and feel satisfied and compensated for the task you did. In serious games, it's important to tell the player how they're doing and provide them with the opportunity to revisit older levels to perhaps improve their skills. This could be done through the use of reward systems. It's also important to not do it in a negative way as that can ruin the player's motivation in continuing the game. It's important to give proper feedback through visuals or raw values, but currently it's best to have visuals display over pure textual feedback as it can be more understandable and faster to interpret the information; however, incorporating both is recommended as well. For example, visuals such as stars and smileys make for a good indication of how well a player did in a level.
When designing a game for the sake of teaching, it's important to reinforce the information regularly whether it's building off of things they already know or attempting to change their behavior. This ties back into human cognition and especially how memory functions and gets stored in the brain. The image below showcases the types of memory where ideally long term memory should be the goal when teaching information and that can be achieved through the reiteration of information and tying it to previously learned information as mentioned earlier. In addition, the player must feel that what they are doing is valuable and the time spent is worthwhile. To help the player retain what they are learning it is important to spread out the topic among levels and have repetition to help reinforce what they are learning.
Playing it freely
The single most important thing when making a serious game is having the user play the game without having to be forced to. If there are motivation, rewards, feedback, retention and the proper learning environment then the player should want to play your game. If they do begin playing your game without the need for extrinsic motivation or being forced to then you have truly made a successful serious game as they have created their own intrinsic motivation which will help them greatly retain the topic you are trying to teach to them.
So why should you make a serious game
Making a serious game can be as much as a learning experience for the player as it will be for us as developers. The reward from creating a game that will help students learn through fun and interactive learning experiences will help them better retain knowledge. With the new age of technology upon us, the old school system is not keeping up with it, where there’s still a focus on memorization when almost anything can be acquired on the internet. Students are paying attention less in school because when it comes to assignments or projects they can google to find their answers. Same goes with exams and tests, they study a few days before and then the knowledge used for that test/exam is not always getting stored long term and usually fades afterwards. By incorporating gamified elements, a more immersive and engaging way of learning is formed. Having game developers focus on making serious games, can better help the students of the new generation have a new way of learning that will improve their learning experience.
To conclude with the combination of having a clear objective for your project and the proper motivation behind it will help the player dive into your game. You must also consider the way individual learn whether its visuals, auditory, hands-on, etc. To keep them playing the game you will need a proper reward and feedback system so that the player can learn from mistakes and feel rewarded when they do some right. Knowing your target market and doing your research on the topic will allow you to better help your audience. To make sure the player fully grasps the topic there needs to be repetition to help them retain the topic when they are learning. However, the most important reason to be making serious games is it help the students of the new generation have a more fun and interactive experience when learning new material. Incorporating the things above can lead to a good serious game that hopefully will help people learn the desired topic.