SXSWi: Serious Games: Can Learning Be Hard Fun?

Serious Games: Can Learning Be Hard Fun?

March 11, 2007, 11:30 CST

John Purdy, President/CEO, Red Knight Learning Systems
Lauren Davis, Liemandt Foundation, Hidden Agenda Games
Paul Medcalf, Senior Flash Game Developer, Blockdot Games
Melinda Jackson, Director of Instructional Design, Enspire Learning

Resources on serious games:,,,,

book resource: Engaging Learning, Designing e-Learning Simulation Games
– Clark N. Quinn

“Can learning be hard fun?” – central question

You are challenged and it is difficult, but the fun is in that grappling to solve the difficult problem. Similar to a tough professor who made class fun and pushed you to learn more

Q: What are serious games?
A: learning games, educational games, games with non-entertainment purposes

If a picture is worth a thousand words, an animations is worth a thousand pictures. And to take that a step further, a game is worth a thousand animations. – Peter Raad, Executive Director, The Guildhall at SMU

Davis: working with Liemandt Foundation in Austin to develop middle school game on $25,000 (about 1/10 of what is needed). Worked with college students to create contest where the objectives are to design a game for middle school students to learn. Run through Hidden Agenda site. The games are free for students, teachers, parents.
MeChem – robot battle game for middle school kids to play against each other. Have to build robots to fight against each other – requires physics knowledge and chemistry knowledge
ELEMENTAL – periodic table Tetris-like game. Have to build compounds to make shapes disappear
Waste of Space – Asteroids-like game where you are a space garbage man, but using real physics properties like velocity, thrust, etc
Algebra Arcage – Pacman-like game that teaches FOIL method. Takes a lot of practice to learn FOIL and this game does that.

Metcalf: from Blockdot games. Game programmer and game play designer. Formerly worked with Cisco to create games that teach. Developed game to teach about wireless networking. Objectives: teach components, teach security types, protocols. Want to make it fun, introduce an environment like outer space. They give different objectives like room sizes, layout, etc that require a wireless network be set up. They gradually introduce new concepts so that player doesn’t have to learn everything at once. Had to design all the levels so that they were fun and challenging without being too much in your face about the technical stuff.

Jackson: (enspire learning) Create interactive learning experiences for mostly corporations, but also some K-12 and universities like Harvard Business School. Learning is about “tell me, show me, let me.” School: a lot of telling, a little showing, not much letting. Games: a little telling, more showing but a lot of letting.

Purdy: Remission – a game developed for teenagers who have cancer (by HopeLab). To learn about their treatments, chemo, radiation and the importance of staying with their medications, etc. Also designed to get them to take care of their help. First person tutor type of game. Starts by getting you to learn how to move, then how to use your weapons, then to fight bacteria, etc. The price was fairly high to develop this game. Give the game away free to teens with cancer. They ask for a donation if you are not a teen with cancer. Young people who played the game showed higher adherence to therapy and meds.

Q to panel from Purdy: if the ultimate goal is to provide learning experience, should it be a 50/50 balance of learning and entertainment?

Davis: Hidden Agenda games are judged on 70% entertainment value and 30% educational value. If it is not fun they just won’t play it so you have to skew to entertainment side and then move education in later.

Medcalf: sometimes you have to compromise a little on entertainment to get in the education, but without fun the game isn’t worth building as people wont play.

Jackson: we have to make tradeoffs. Game designed might not think it is fun, but instructional designer has to force certain issues to be covered.

Jackson: Feedback is one of the most important teaching tools we have. Letting students know what they have done right, wrong, etc. Feedback should be more immediate.

Question from audience: how do you balance the pedagogical/content expert who is a teacher with the person making a game?

Medcalf: At Cisco, the holy trinity of educational game designing: subject matter expert, instructional designer, game designer all have to work together. There is an internal conflict, but it requires teamwork to balance their different expertise.

Question from audience: the “trick them into learning”, coercive rhetoric doesn’t come across well. Why is their a distinction between education and entertainment?

Davis: “Hidden Agenda” is tongue and cheek. Rather than hiding, the learning needs to be baked in or intrinsic to the game. We save 70/30 to get designers to think primarily about the game play and bake in the education. Bad games have “shoot the bad guy now do a math problem!” That just doesn’t make sense.

Question from audience: Are these games a one-time thing or an over and over experience for users?

Jackson: YVille is giving a lot of focus on game play and how much kids are using these programs.

Overall an interesting panel. My only problem (and I didn’t get to ask this) is that most games start with very few rules (Steven Johnson’s explanation). You know how to move the character, but you figure out all the rules as you play. How to get into the castle, how to get more gear, etc. But when you are teaching chemistry, so many of the rules need to be laid out. How does this jive?

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arvind s. grover

I am a progressive educator, a podcaster (, a blogger, and dean of faculty of JK-11 school (building a high school) in New York City.