Serious Games

Julia Lo Iacono

David Michael describes that there are only two types of people who understand the definition of serious games; the game developers who build games and the ‘hardcore gamers’ who play them. Both types take their games seriously. Others may view the concept of serious games as polar opposites. Åkerfeldt and Staffan  Selander define the serious game as, “The intention of such games is that they are used for more than entertainment. They are often used in education and semi-formal educational settings.” The practice of learning and play has existed for a long time and is evident in other mammals playing as an innate characteristic that allows us to interact, explore and learn about the world. (Ger, P.M.  2014)  Serious games have evolved for people and are present in various formal and educational settings such as the military, the serious game America’s Army from 2002  proved a successful and attractive initial training tool for new volunteer soldiers. However, in educational settings involving adolescent learners, there is little evidence of serious games.

Why is that? This chapter will discuss some of the existing challenges in developing serious games for adolescent students from the reasoning on the negative perspective on serious games, the educator’s perspective on serious games, and issues with balancing the ‘engaging’ and ‘educational’ aspect of serious games. The chapter will then introduce some studies which have shown some success in overcoming some of the challenges mentioned.

When reviewing serious games in education Ger (2014)  states it is important to look at the student’s perspective and attitudes towards serious games. He also states that compared to popular commercial video games, the perception of serious games with students tends to fall short. Traditional learning already has a less enthusiastic attitude by most students, especially younger teenagers. By adding serious games to the picture, the student may perceive this as a teacher’s poor attempt to encourage interest and engagement in the lesson. After all, how can something serious be also fun? A difficulty posed for educators who want to integrate serious games in learning is that the student may be reluctant to accept the merge in worlds of ‘school and learning’ with ‘home and play’ where an interactive tool can be played in both scenarios. Read (2015) mentions the teenager student as being a complex audience to design for since they are gradually stepping into adulthood, they tend to “recreate themselves to fit into a social context”. In this stage of self-discovery and growth into adulthood, it is known that teenagers need space and set boundaries between different contexts.

Therefore they may not appreciate how serious games merge both worlds of what the teenager considers their downtime or ‘play’ and ‘learning’. Reluctant students may engage with serious games simply because they ‘have to’ as it is viewed as another part of education. Others may choose not to interact with the serious game at all. Regardless, in both scenarios, the message of the game will likely not be picked up by the student. (Read, 2015)Despite the growth in popularity in serious games, there is still little evidence of it being implemented in educational settings involving adolescent learners. Despite studies conducted, many researchers come to conclude further research is necessary on a grander scale for it to be of significant impact. Read (2015) in particular mentions the lack of data available on the adolescent demographic for serious games when conducting their studies. “Studying literature on how to design for teenagers revealed very few studies.” Nonetheless, looking at how video games have evolved to encompass a larger audience of different ages including adults, different cultures, gender, and demographics. It has overall become very accessible and is a large part of mass media. There is no reason why serious games cannot do the same. It can be seen that some adolescent students may have negative first impressions of serious games due to them being seen as part of education, the ‘fun’ element may not be present. In addition, teenage students have difficulty in situating their ‘two’ worlds, and serious games as a method of learning may provide benefits if approached in a manner specific to this demographic with an emphasis on relevant research.

As discussed, adolescent learners may come with preconceived negative attitudes to learning and serious games may have a positive role to play. As a result depending on how the serious game is designed for this specific demographic can dictate whether or not they will actually play it, enjoy it and most importantly understand the main message. The more common serious games entail memorization or trial-and-error type of games. This can lose the students’ enthusiasm over time. Other serious games place emphasis on it to be ‘fun’ and appealing to the student, in an attempt for it to be similar to popular video games such as Minecraft or World of Warcraft (WoW).  However, by focusing on the ‘fun’ aspect, it can easily neglect the point of a serious game for students, which is to learn. There are many methodologies and frameworks for video games however, designing for a serious game is different. Balancing a serious game for it to be both educational and entertaining is difficult, especially if there is a lack of different disciplines involved in its development. Lack of effective communication between different disciplines can lead to poor game design since the game developer and educator have different goals in mind. Zhonggen  (2019) mentions Peacemaker as an example of a game where the emphasis was placed on the learning aspect. The “heavy mental workload” had made it difficult for students to process information resulting in a poor learning effect and negative experience. The development team of a serious game is key to changing a student’s negative perspective on serious games. In order to do that they must achieve effective cooperation and balance between ‘fun’ and ‘learning’.

The student’s perspective is not the only one that should be considered. It is important to also look at the educator and parent’s attitude towards serious games in order to get a better understanding of other factors and challenges revolving around the lack of serious games in school settings. For parents and educators who are unfamiliar with serious games, the common social stigma of violence and nudity in commercial video games conveyed by mass media can paint serious games in a bad light. Educators unfamiliar with “game-based technology” would not know to approach lessons incorporating serious games or “may feel at a disadvantage compared to students” who are more likely to have experience with video games. (Ger, 2014) Cost, funding and improved assessment technology investment can be higher compared to traditional learning. Despite the growing popularity of serious games, many papers and articles acknowledge the lack of research and documented information for serious games. There needs to be more evidence of successful serious games implemented in a school setting to convince educators of the investment. In order to do that more research studies should be taken place to fill the gap.

Many researchers such as Zhonggen, (2019)have acknowledged that educators and game designers should work together alongside other disciplines in the development team. Effective cooperation between these disciplines is also necessary to create a quality serious game that meets the balance of ‘educational’ and ‘fun’. Michael D. And Chen place emphasis on this in their  Serious Games: Games that Educate, Train and Inform (2006). Considering each role in the development team has different expertise and goals for the game, a different methodology is needed for designing a serious game that enables effective collaboration in the team. Silva, F.G.M et al, (2020 ) proposes a methodology that has been designed and tested in a study to determine if the methodology had overcome the barriers of communication and perspectives in the development team. In particular, it aims to distinguish between learning objectives, storytelling and gameplay.

Figure 1 of Serious Game methodology diagram (Silva, F.G.M et al, 2020)

The first diagram outlines the main steps in defining the serious game starting from my topic choice or subject which will then determine the learning objectives. The dashed arrow lines refer to an iterative process. Understanding the target audience is another important factor as discussed earlier. Aside from evaluating the demographic, psychographic, and behavioural traits, the article states that we should also look at the learning styles of the audience. It mentions four learning styles identified by Honey and Mumford:

  • Activists:   Learn by doing and keen on experience
  • Reflectors: observational, cautious and reflect on the experience
  • Theorists: need to understand the reason behind actions, investigative and fact-based
  • Pragmatists: practical and quick to action
Table 1: Game Genres based on Blooms taxonomy

Depending on game design decisions, it should be based around the learning style of the audience but should also connect to the learning objectives and make sense to the topic of the serious game.

Figure 2 of Serious Game methodology diagram (Silva, F.G.M et al, 2020)

Silve et al, 2020 
proposes to add another learning layer to the main game to keep the player engaged and increase learning effectiveness and add variety to the serious game. Learning layers can be viewed as relevant ‘add-ons‘ to the main game ranging from mini-games, narration, cutscenes, or puzzles.

Figure 3 Student’s responses  in relation to the use of methodology (Silva, F.G.M et al, 2020)

This questionnaire came after the group was tasked to create a serious game using this method. The majority of students have found the method to be useful when developing the game as it specified the steps and distinguished between learning and game mechanics. The majority also found it improved communication between disciplines, however, 5 out of 17 disagreed. Suggested improvements for the students were the simplification of the diagram used to describe the main game and learning layers which were adapted and split into two separate diagrams.

The author concludes that the methodology has shown overall positive results. It helped to identify and distinguish between learning techniques and game elements. It provided a clearer understanding and simple terminology to each role in the development team. However, a recurring suggestion is that more studies with various groups and disciplines should be carried out to determine its effectiveness.

In addition to creating a methodology specific to serious games, (Bui, P. et al, 2020) provides their development process of creating serious games. Various researchers such as  Mitgutsch and Alvarado (2012) have pointed out that the majority of study focuses on the effectiveness of serious games yet research on the process and reasoning on game design decisions is missing. By including this aspect, it could provide insight into how serious games can be improved.

The development and design process being evaluated are the different game versions of the Number Navigation Game (NNG). Three experiments were conducted in Finland from 2014-2016 where students played 4 versions of the NNG. The study aims to focus on the student’s experience throughout the different versions as well as their viewpoints and preferences between the different versions. The game is played on different maps. The map is divided into a hundred squares. The player navigates a ship and is given a square number where they must travel from the harbour to collect materials. They must input various math equations to navigate the ship to the destination. The development team have included a detailed summary of changes and updates for
different game versions.

Table 2: Game experiences of 4th graders playing NNG 1, NNG 2, NNG 3 (Bui, P. et al, 2020)

Based on student feedback, (Bui, P. et al, 2020) recommend game designers and developers focus on the game’s usability and simplicity, and coherence in UI in conjunction with learning objectives. Positive results were shown for these areas, which created a smooth and immersive experience for the player. Students also appreciated better aesthetics. The author suggests further research in order to discover extra additions to the main game that could maintain student enthusiasm.

When encountering difficulty in appealing or understanding a target audience for serious games,  it can be beneficial to involve them in the design process. Their presence in the design process can also provide content for the serious game directly or indirectly, that is more relevant to the target audience. In a study account written by J.C Read 2015, the development team was struggling to incorporate entertainment in a serious game for adolescents who were constrained to leave school due to disruptive behaviour. The purpose of the serious game was to help them understand their emotional behaviour and adapt to get along with their peers better. To meet this goal, the nature of the game had to take a more narrative approach. The students playfully acted out in different roles that allowed the development team to gather dialogue content for the game. The students also engaged in making characters in “conflict situations” using plasticine and photographing frame shots for the scene. Speech bubble conversations were also included by the students. The last activity for the students was to create faces expressing different feelings on biscuits using icing pens which would then be incorporated into the game. By allowing teenagers to express themselves in the design process through dialogue, characters “and their own socially constructed humour” the fun element in the serious game is present. It can be seen that involving the target audience in the design process of the game does provide benefits, albeit the approach will vary on the demographic of the audience and type of game.


Many researchers have acknowledged in their studies that the adolescent learner can be a challenging audience to design for.  However, there are more factors that contribute to the low presence of serious games in educational settings. Emerging studies on methodologies specifically designed for balancing serious games and improving communication amongst disciplines have yet to be further developed and tested in various studies. Educators should also benefit from being informed on the growth and impact of serious games, and welcome opportunities for studies and tests in classroom settings. Where once video games have grasped the intrigue and enthusiasm of children, its growth and development has caused it to become a popular pastime for adults as well, some of whom have a large online presence and career through games on platforms such as Twitch. Serious games have the possibility to capture the same level of engagement and interest for adolescent learners if following continued research and studies conducted on this particular demographic, particularly the process of developing the game detailing game decision reasoning and student feedback.

Check your understanding



Bui, P., Rodríguez-Aflecht, G., Brezovszky, B., Hannula-Sormunen, M., Laato, S. & Lehtinen, E. (2020) Understanding Students’ Game Experiences Throughout the Developmental Process of the Number Navigation Game. Educational Technology Research and Development: A Bi-Monthly Publication of the Association for Educational Communications & Technology. 68 (5), pp. 2395.

Ger, P.M. (2014) eAdventure: Serious Games, Assessment and Interoperability. 2014 International Symposium on Computers in Education (SIIE), Computers in Education (SIIE), 2014 International Symposium On. pp. 231-233.

Michael, D. (2006) Serious Games: Games that Educate, Train and Inform. : Thomson Course Technology.

Read, J.C. (2015) Serious Games in Education. EAI Endorsed Transactions on Serious Games. 2 (6), pp. 1-5.

Silva, F.G.M. (2020) Practical Methodology for the Design of Educational Serious Games. Information (2078-2489). 11 (1), pp. 14.

Wim, W. (2019) Why and how Serious Games can Become Far More Effective: Accommodating Productive Learning Experiences, Learner Motivation and the Monitoring of Learning Gains. Journal of Educational Technology & Society. 22 (1), pp. 59-69.

Zhonggen, Y. (2019) A Meta-Analysis of use of Serious Games in Education Over a Decade. International Journal of Computer Games Technology. 2019.

Author Bio

As of 2021, Julia Lo Iacono is in her second year studying Creative Digital Media in TUD – Blanchardstown. The research and contribution to this textbook has piqued her interest in the Video Game Industry.  Julia has been a lover of games from a young age and is currently invested in the famed block game by Mojang Studios as well as competitive games by Riot Games. She is drawn to story-driven games such as The Last of Us, Red Dead Redemption, and The Walking Dead (if only her budget allowed it). After graduating, Julia hopes to be working in the Graphic Design and Web Design industry.


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Game Design & Development 2021 Copyright © 2021 by Julia Lo Iacono is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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