While looking for games on the internet that could be used in the classroom, I came across the emerging genre of serious games. Serious games are simulations that model the real world. The main difference between serious games and other genres is that these games are not developed specifically for entertainment. Instead, they have real life objectives such as: building a successful third world farm, infecting the local populace of a region with a cold (to learn about disease prevention and spread), or minimizing damage from a disaster.
Playing serious games can make the player become more emotionally invested in the subject matter. Third World Farmer is a game where the player must plant crops, expand their farm and battle the many hardships of rural African life. Some of these hardships include: civil wars, diseases, refugees, and corruption. As I showed the game to a group of students, they felt sympathy for the family that could not afford medicine and got sicker. Some students bragged about their successes, other complained about its difficulty. All of them learned a very harsh truth; the first few rounds determined success. If your crops fail early, it is nearly impossible to successfully rebound as you sink further into debt.
Some games encourage learning by being the human antagonist in order to teach about human responses and their effectiveness. Killer Flu is a serious game where the gamer tries to infect a large percentage of a population with a mutation of influenza. The gamer learns about the types of immunity, how viruses spread, and how best to spread it further. Pandemic II takes this same concept further. Players learn how to develop a disease that spreads worldwide, adapting and evolving to combat prevention techniques. This helps teach them and the community at large how diseases spread and how they can be contained.
In addition to teaching the gamer, Serious games create and teach a community. By playing Stop Disasters, the global community develops strategies and defenses for preparing for natural disasters. With the recent tragedies in Japan, this game and others like it are more important than ever.
No post about serious games would be complete without a mention of Jane McGonigal. She has created, designed and led a number of serious games around the world. For further background on Serious games (and gaming in general) check out her book Reality is Broken or her website www.realityisbroken.org.
When playing a serious game, the reward of success or the pain of failure will entice the player to learn more about the subject matter to figure out new strategies. Serious games get the player to willingly learn about the real world, and studies show that “willing” learning makes a student’s understanding of a topic more complete. With serious games, a successful round means that the player raised a family in bleak conditions, explored uncharted areas, or even saved lives. More educational systems today need to recognize the power of serious games and invest in them.