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Serious Games in Education

Mary Ulicsak and Martha Wright

The full version of this literature review is available to download in pdf format. On this page you will find the review's executive summary.

Download pdf version of this literature review

Executive Summary

This report is a review of research around gaming environments for education; this includes games, serious games, virtual worlds and simulations. These games are used widely outside of formal education systems, for example by the military and within the health and commerce sectors. Yet their use within schools is less common. This section summarises their current use and how teachers could be supported to use them appropriately.

Identifying games that can be used for education is complex. there are many definitions and ways of classifying educational games, serious games and their relationship to virtual worlds and simulations.

Some view them as a continuum (Aldrich 2009), while others see them all as different categories of the same thing (Sawyer & Smith 2008). Serious games are the accepted term for games with an educational intent. they need to be engaging, although not necessarily fun, while the learning can be implicit or explicit. there is no uniform pedagogy within serious or educational games; earlier games tended to be based on a behaviourist model. later games try and incorporate experiential, situated and socio-cultural pedagogical models. the learning outcome is dependent upon an appropriate pedagogy and the underlying game mechanics and how the content is integrated into the game so the learning is intrinsic to play. A comparison of the use of serious games (including simulations and virtual worlds) in multiple domains was made. the aim was to determine if the practice could be transferred to the formal educational domain.

Serious games, particularly training simulations, are integral to the military. they provide a safe costeffective mechanism for training tasks to be performed in hazardous circumstances or which would be time and labour intensive to set up in the real world. the high level of fidelity, that is, their close resemblance to actual events, enables transference (Stone 2008). learning is predominantly mediated through instructors externally to the game experience, although players can “win” or “lose”. the ability to modify the scenario to ensure fidelity is key.

Serious games in the health sector are also a growing domain. like the military, training simulations are becoming more common for medical practitioners. realistic role-play is time and labour intensive and traditional methods of teaching, such as card sorting, lack the psychological fidelity that is, they do not mimic the responses that the real situation would cause. Such games are also likely to make use of alternative interfaces. the wii Fit has been recognised as a way of training players in certain appropriate behaviours that will benefit their health. Again like the military the games tend to have clear well-defined learning goals although there is no fixed answer.

The use of serious games in commerce is also increasing. they are used to train staff via simulations, and, as in the other domains, popularity is increasing due to the cost benefits. However, commerce is aware that games develop skills needed in everyday life, like confidence in taking risks and improving communication across the organisation. they also take advantage of the fact many new employees understand the concept of games and appreciate the flexibility when carrying out learning exercises.

Games also have a vocational potential. Simulations are used for continuing professional development and training. they may also be useful for young people not in education, employment or training (NeetS). they can act as a safe introduction to various vocational careers – failure is not an issue, in fact it is expected, when learning a game (Squire 2005).

Serious games for informal learning are also proliferating due to increased commissioning. Channel 4, the Parliamentary education Group, DeFrA and the uS government (who held a competition around games for health) are commissioning games to engage and educate young people. they are used because of the high level of gaming that occurs within these age groups, the cost effectiveness and reach that games have. unlike vocational training or formal education there is less direct assessment of the learning that occurs in these games.

Finally, in formal education there are examples such as the Consolarium, or the work of Kurt Squires, where games used with sufficient support are shown to be motivational and an aid to learning high level or complex skills. Some researchers, notably Gee and Shaffer, argue that games, particularly epistemic games that model professional practice, are good for teaching and assessing because the best commercial games provide appropriate challenges, they build on previous information, they require problem solving and critical thinking. this practice has not yet transferred to the classroom. this, they argue, is because games teach and assess 21st century skills, such as problem solving, collaboration, negotiation etc that are not the foundation of the current education system. Currently games are more likely to be used if they can be seen to inspire, or there is a direct link to the curriculum. the latter is more likely if the game can provide appropriate assessment and fits into existing lesson structures. The criterion for using a game is often whether it will make the teacher’s life easier.

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