It’s easy to get carried away when it comes to serious games, simulations and virtual world technologies, but like all tools there are situations when they are and aren’t useful.

Serious games, simulations and virtual worlds are best used when traditional, real world learning methods are one or more of the following;

  1. expensive
  2. dangerous
  3. logistically impossible
  4. boring

Let’s examine each of these points.

1.  Expensive

With the cost of real world materials going up, and the cost of digital content going down, cost is increasingly a good reason to use serious games and simulations.

One of the best and oldest examples of this is flight simulators.  With planes and fuel costing a small fortune, airlines have for many years now used simulators to train pilots.

The biotechnology simulations we have developed for Monash University and BioCSL are another example – the equipment and materials used in creating these drugs can cost millions of dollars.  By simulating these activities students and workers can get experience of these processes at a small fraction of the cost.

2.  Dangerous

After the aviation industry, the military is the second largest user of simulation and serious game technologies.  Soldiers can train for a wide variety of battle scenarios without the risk of harm to themselves or others.

Likewise our nursing simulations allow students to practice procedures such as the administration of an IV fluid without putting real patients at risk.

Our electrotechnology simulation allows students to practice installing an electrical service in a new residence without the risk of electric shock.

Learning by making mistakes can be very powerful, but in dangerous situations is often only possible with simulation or serious game technologies.

3. Logistically impossible

The third largest use of simulations and serious game technologies is in health.  Virtual patients(both physical and digital) allow students to practice a wide range of procedures which would otherwise be impossible to co-ordinate in the real world.

Our Vplay product allows GPs to practice cultural skills with a range of patients, once again learning from mistakes.  Likewise our pharmacy simulators allow students to practice making medicine in a sterile environment, something they do not have access to in the real world.

4.  Boring

Our occupational health and safety serious game, the Whitecard Game, targets young school leavers who are just starting an apprenticeship and need to learn about workplace hazards.

It’s important that this content is presented in an engaging fashion, as many of these young people do not respond well to traditional learning.   Engaging students in this manner can ensure that when they do set foot on a worksite they know what hazards to look out for.

Learner engagement is often viewed as simply making things easier for the student – but this is very important when you are considering issues like safety.

Another way we use serious games and simulations to engage learners is by putting information into context.  Our business simulations created for University of Melbourne take traditionally dry topics and wrap them in an engaging story line, engaging students and allowing them to learn through play and experience rather than simply memorising facts.

When shouldn’t I use serious games and simulations?

Your use case should match at least a few of the reasons given above.

If you find the opposite is true – perhaps these technologies are not the right solution.

For example, let’s look at the potential for a ‘how to tie your shoelace’ simulation;

  • It’s not expensive to do in the real world.  It’s free or very cheap.
  • It is not a dangerous activity.
  • It’s logistically very easy.  Shoes and laces are common and accessible.
  • It’s not something that can be made more exciting by using digital technologies – in fact doing it in the real world is much more tactile and enjoyable.

Consider your audience

Another thing to consider is your learners.  If they are not comfortable using these types of technologies then you may like to either reconsider using serious games and simulations, or factor this into your design.

For younger cohorts where we know most learners will be gamers and quite tech savvy, we often design more game like simulations which allow users to navigate the digital environment themselves.  If we were dealing with an audience with a different skill set, for example retired builders, we would consider simplifying the user interface and making navigation more automated.

In conclusion

Serious games, simulations and virtual worlds all have their uses, and most organisations should be using them a lot more for education and training.   However as with all tools, it’s best not to get too carried away by the shiny things, and to really consider the best way you can achieve your desired learning outcomes.

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