Game Science: A view from the edge
Over the last decade, I have been in a unique position of witnessing the rise of serious games and its emergence as a research science area: Game Science.
When I first became a researcher at the University of London, few had even thought about the possibility of using games for anything other than leisure. The genres that initially emerged were more focused upon young male gamers than the global reach that we are familiar with today.
Making my first talks about serious games and the use of play for learning in formal settings, I did sometimes feel I was talking a foreign language. Audiences had mixed reactions, with some in fact repulsed by the idea. The watershed moment came with the emergence of casual, online and mobile games – their pervasiveness and widespread adoption among all audiences quickly transformed the debate about serious games.
Arguably, none of this could have happened without the early studies on the first generation serious games. Having set up the international centre of excellence, the Serious Games Institute, at Coventry University, I was privileged to be at the leading edge of this new research.
Our team, alongside a small number of other academics from all over the world, have undertaken some of the early ground-breaking studies in the area of game play and game-based learning and training (1) (2) - and the results were more surprising than we ever supposed they would be - casting play and games as some of the most effective learning tools we have.
(4) Dismissed by others as 'exceptionalist,' this research demonstrated the unique and significant advantage of game-based learning compared to other e-learning approaches as well as traditional learning. Still, much basic and advanced scientific research is needed. Here we look to the neuroscientists, psychologists and educational scientists to help us to understand more about how and why play and game mechanics are so powerful for learning.
Over the last three years, people now know what serious games and game-based learning are, and the public argument in favour of them has been made successfully. While the perception of games has altered radically, we still face resistance to developing high budget and effective serious games for all ages of education. It is as if games and play are not taken seriously, particularly when it comes to investment. Consequently, educational games continue to be perceived as second rate in quality. To date, America's Army is the highest budget serious game ever developed and cost $32.8 million over eight years; but even this is a fraction of the budgets of many entertainment games when compared to $160 million for Grand Theft Auto 5 and $220 million for Call of Duty.
As educational and serious games compete for support comparable to their entertainment counterparts, investment in e-learning has taken off in a big way. As present, massive interest and investment in e-learning and online learning projects seems assured – particularly for massive open online courses, or MOOCs.
However, the issue of retention (currently at around 16% completion rates for single MOOC modules) is deeply problematic. E-learning can automate learning but game-based learning can enervate, motivate and engage learners. In the future, gamifying MOOCs through games online learning could help make them more engaging and, therefore, retain more students. With this opportunity at hand, perhaps we should start upgrading MOOCs to gMOOCs (gamified MOOCs) – a term I coined in a recent report (5).
After such an eventful decade, the journey towards developing effective, engaging and immersive experiences is just beginning. As academics, we will continue to develop our research – including frameworks and metrics to improve game design, smarter artificial intelligence to scaffold learning and conceptual understanding for more effective and social immersive experiences. For me, the critical next step for second generation serious games is attracting significant budgets, engaging the game industry and developing new genres and interactive content that changes how we live and learn. I hope the next ten years will be as exciting for this emerging field of study and I hope that we will be able to show through our scientific advances that games are more than just child's play....
Sara is leaving the UK to take up a new role at Curtin University, Perth, Western Australia, as Associate Deputy Vice Chancellor and Professor of Teaching and Learning.
(1) Arnab, S., Brown, K., Clarke, S., Dunwell, I., Lim, T., Suttie, N. & de Freitas, S. (2013). The Development Approach of a Pedagogically-Driven Serious Game to support Relationship and Sex Education (RSE) within a classroom setting. Computers & Education.
(2) Knight, J., Carly, S., Tregunna, B., Jarvis, S., Smithies, R., de Freitas, S., Mackway-Jones, K. & Dunwell, I. (2010). Serious gaming technology in major incident triage training: A pragmatic controlled trial. Resuscitation Journal 81(9): 1174-9.
(3) Rebolledo-Mendez, G., Avramides, K., de Freitas, S. & Memarzia, K. (2009). Societal impact of a Serious Game on raising public awareness: the case of FloodSim, in Proceedings of the 2009 ACM SIGGRAPH Symposium on Video Games. New Orleans, Louisiana, pp. 15-22.
(4) de Freitas, S. (2013) Education in Computer Generated Environments. London & New York: Routledge.
(5) de Freitas, S. (2013) MOOCs: The Final Frontier for Higher Education? Last accessed on 15th October 2013 at: https://www.dropbox.com/s/pv51ml5zc0kscx7/MOOCs_The_Final_Frontier_report%20%282%29.pdf.