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What I look for when I judge Serious Games

Serious Games can be used to develop conviction and competence, through the increased use of engagement, practice, emotion, and richer content. When I judge sims and other serious games, this is for what I am looking.

A) Interactive World (30%)

From a design perspective, the highest level goal is to create and then present a small, self-contained simulation “world,” “environment,” or “content model” with appropriate rules, real-time rich interactivity, and visual and action based feedback. The player of the sim “learns” though practicing on and interacting with various subsections of this environment.

A Virtual World (from Theme Hospital)

This simulation world’s rules are framed by the learning objectives of the program. The creation of this simulation often requires novel and multi-layer visualizations and interfaces (although where computer games provide useful models, they should be adopted). These worlds may be abstract, or real world, or a combination of the two. When a player fails, the reasons for the failure have to be visualized and otherwise self-evident.

B) Entice Mode (5%)

The program will launch a short, non-interactive video style presentation that will expose users to basic rules, show some core interactions, and make the user excited about and comfortable with the upcoming experience. It is possible that some users will skip this content all together, while others will watch it two or three times to get a feel for the content before engaging.

C) Role of Coach (5%)

The Serious Game should use some type of “coach” character. The “coach” avatar can be used to create a connection with the user by kicking off levels and concepts, providing debriefings, and giving tips and encouragement. Finally, the coach will present any pedagogically traditional content that will be used to augment the experience, such as bulleted summaries and diagrams of concepts. However, the best sims can predictably develop knowledge in players without explicitly teaching them anything.

An Example of a Coach Avatar

D) Level Structure (5%)

Each level should begin with a briefing, and after the player engages the sim, end with a customized debriefing either explaining the success of failure. If the sim does not have discreet levels, a character or even note found can serve the same function more seamlessly.

E) First Level (10%)

The sim should not start off with significant passive explanation (the Entice mode should bear much of that). Rather, the player should be allowed to engage the interactive section as quickly as possible. The design goals of the first level, rather than highly instructional, are as follows:

1. The player has to get a general feeling for the interactivity.

2. A player can finish it quickly (in less than one minute).

3. The directions and goals are unambiguous, with immediate feedback and a clear sense of success or failure. It should be set up through a brief cut scenes, and very high feedback, such as in-game tips/directions.

4. There is a reset button (to encourage exploration and reduce fear of failure).

5. There is room for some exploration, and/or promise of more interesting things to come. In fact, through the design and any instruction, players should be encouraged to simply exist in a safe, subsection of this world, exploring and testing the rules on their own. The world should feel like an open-ended sandbox. To accomplish this, players can either replay the first level as often as they want, or they can achieve the stated goal, but linger before they move on to the next level.

F) Small Challenges that Allow for Creativity (10%)

Then give players small challenges in this world that can be solved using a variety of different techniques. (Minimize the use of single solution challenges.) Let players express themselves if possible. Open up the world a bit.

G) More Complicated Challenges (15%)

Increase the depth and length of the challenges until they are more game-like and elaborate. Make challenges harder, and also combine the application of various other skills. Imagine the skills within a player as a cone that gets bigger throughout the levels.

The games can be synchronous, or the game can provide artifacts (such as screen shots of solutions, awards, or scores) that a student can share in a community.

The game may require stories for contexts. Where it does, offer a few different alternative story “skins” to appeal to the most players as possible. Easter eggs may be included to increase the value of community.

H) Replay with a Focus on Different Approaches to Win (5%)

Encourage players to replay the same levels over again, but try new approaches. Levels should be available for replaying after they have been won, and open-ended challenge levels should be available after the player is done with a story mode. This often requires the use of explicit “trophies” or “achievements” to be given for the successful application of new approaches.

Examples of Achievements from the iPhone game Plants vs. Zombies.

I) Rigorous Assessment (15%)

Finally, present the player with rigorous challenges to solve. This part of the program may only use a traditional presentation of material that lines up with the destination application, such as in a test or real world problem.

See also: Using Serious Games and Simulations: A Quick and Dirty Guide

For more information, see: The Complete Guide to Simulations and Serious Games - How the Most Valuable Content Will Be Created In the Age Beyond Gutenberg to Google (Wiley, 2009)

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