Game of Clones?


Oregon Trail – circa 1990

Having attended a serious games conference last week, I’m going to list my likes, concerns and suggestions for the folks working in the industry, and those who are seeking to buy games for learning.  Overall, I fear a game of clones is afoot.

The industry:  What I mean by this is the array of companies that are catering to the needs of educational, corporate, military, healthcare, non-profits and others, seeking to design and deliver game-based experiences that advance relevant learning for included stakeholder groups.

What?!  (Jargon meter pegs to 10…)


Game-based experiences:  These can be board games, mobile games, desktop computer games, or headset (VR) games that serve as a part or whole of a learning-related design.

Relevant learning:  The game helps players uncover, challenge, and integrate new knowledge that is helpful to them in their context.

Stakeholder groups:  This would include employees, customers, partner institutions, or members of the general public, who all have some part to play in the value chain of the company or institution in question.

LIKES:  There are are a number of good things that are evident in the sessions and through examples of the work that various providers are creating:

  • Integrating design thinking:  There is some awareness building of doing a better job of ’empathizing’ with eventual users of the game / service / product in question.  While this can slow the process down, sometimes you have to go slow to go fast.
  • Mixing realities:  There are some excellent examples of games created that cause people to visit and/or interact with real spaces, people and objects.  I think this is a productive trend as it has the potential to bring learners into exercising curiosity practically – in other words, there is the possibility of integrating the real world into the game play scenario for faster transfer of learning into practical application.  Whenever we can make people curious about the content and matters at hand, that’s a good thing.
  • Incorporating stories:  We all intuitively know the power of a good story, and there is good reason to believe that well designed stories will promote longer-term memory.  Plus the story gives meaningful context and provides a great structure for an episodic approach to the game.  Think of Oregon Trail.
  • Increasing sophistication:  There is some indication of a general increase, to my mind, of sophistication in thinking about the role of games, design dimensions of the game experience, and the mapping of that experience to a larger flow of learning.  This is a good thing.


  • Assuming game designers are good at design thinking:  This is a problem that has been brought forward recently; that design thinking is both a process and a discipline that leverages truly creative thinking.  I fear that there may be a broad dehydration of the depth of the process and intolerance of the perceived inefficiencies.  Not everyone is a designer.  Designing well takes time.
  • A lack of critical analysis of the research on learning and transfer of knowledge.  Some game developers are wrapped around the interaction (as they call it), mimicking real-world assembly of objects, for example.  Current technologies do not even come close to approximating the haptic (felt) reality of moving physical pieces.  I think this is faulty thinking – that simply moving a virtual gear onto a spindle with VR controllers will give the learner a full and transferable appreciation of what that entails.
  • Games for good are waning:  I did not see many  (any?) examples of games built to help address core social, economic and environmental issues facing our nation and planet.  Games are uniquely situated (as a methodology) to involve people in these epic battles.   Just ask Jane McGonigal.
  • Money.  Money.  Money.  Some presentations for the K-12 sector were made by private school teachers or companies that cater to specific schools that can afford their products.  While it’s wonderful to see the amazing use of context-aware, mobile, augmented-reality gaming to bring local history and a fictional story together, the entire process was funded by kids whose parents forked out over $30,000 a year (in tuition only).  This is particularly concerning.  I would like to see the very best educational experiences provided to all students.


  • Serious Game designers – take the course on Design Thinking, if you haven’t.  Integrate that into your workflow.
  • US Dept of Public Instruction – divert attention away from advancing the charter / private school voucher agenda, and put money into game development for all curricula (not just STEM).
  • Beware of fidelity trap:  there is a strong attraction to creating visually (and aurally) high-fidelity worlds.  There is, however, some good research that indicates that not everything needs to be so.  Just look at Minecraft for a great example of low-fidelity, high-engagement design.  This falls into the realm of ‘just because we can, doesn’t mean we should.’

If we don’t pay attention, we could fall into the trap of creating clones of game-based experiences that emphasize the wrong points of focus, miss the mark on content and interaction, cost too much, and only serve a particular segment of the population.

Let’s create better games for everyone!

This entry was posted in Education, Technology. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s