Serious Games and Gamification

The notion of using digital games with educational purposes is not new. As soon as digital games appeared in the late 70’s and early 80’s, some authors such as Malone already identified their great potential, without even dreaming the enormous social impact and economic size that the game industry would acquire in the course of the following 30 years.

The idea was seen in the academic field as interesting, and different authors occasionally reflected on the educational potential at the intersection of games, motivation, fun and engagement. However, it was at the turn of the century that a new generation of authors managed to structure the foundations to establish "Digital Game-Based Learning" as an academic field with a unique identity. This generation included many authors and it may be unfair to highlight a selected few, but any academic working in the field would quickly recognize names such as Papert, Gee, Jenkins or Prensky. While they cannot be considered founding fathers of the idea, they did bring forward the right ideas at the right time, just when the growth of the videogame industry exploded.

From this foundation, the last 10 years have seen the growth of this academic field, called Digital Game-Based Learning (DGBL) or Serious Games (SG) indistinctively. While a Technology-Enhanced Learning conference in 2002 may have one isolated article on game-based learning, today many TEL conferences include a track on serious games, and there is a growing number of specific conferences devoted to this area (e.g. Edutainment, VS-Games or Digitel). The latest TEL funding rounds at national and European level have funded research projects focused exclusively on Serious Games, and publishing powerhouses such as Springer, IEEE or Elsevier are considering the possibility of opening new journals in this area.

Another sign if the maturity of the field is the emergence of fragmentation symptoms. There are ongoing disputes about how to measure their educational impact, about whether it may be better to design specific games or to reuse commercial games, and even about which term is more appropriate (Serious Games? Digital Game-Based Learning? Educational Games? Edutainment?).

In addition, as the field grows, the research is no longer about whether educational games should be used at all: the academic community broadly agrees that they do have a great potential, although there are still some detractors. New research lines are not about whether we should use games, but about which games, in which fields, etc. Other relevant lines of research are the assessment of their educational impact, the reduction of the development costs, the study of specific game design patterns for education and even the standardization of game-based content to facilitate reuse and adaptation.

This enormous growth could not be overlooked by the eMadrid network. Some of the last seminars have focused on serious games (e.g. the seminars on Educational Games in the Medical Field or on Games, Learning and Mobility), while other generic events have also discussed educational uses of games or gaming attitudes (e.g. the seminars on Instructional Design in Multidimensional Environments or on Adaptive Systems).

And the recent III eMadrid workshop on e-Learning 2.0 was not an exception. Prof. Sara de Freitas, from Coventry University, was invited to deliver a keynote summarizing recent advances in this field. Prof. de Freitas is a leading expert in the field as the Research Director of the Serious Game Institute, one of the leading research centers focused on Serious Games in Europe and the world.

In her talk, Prof. de Freitas offered an overview of how serious games can have an impact in critical areas. Her talk did cover both Serious Games (the traditional conception in game-based learning) and Gamification, another increasingly important trend that deals with how adding game-like activities around different tasks can increase their effectiveness by acting as a motivator for the individuals involved. Serious Games and Gamification are in fact the two sides of the same coin: both approaches attempt to leverage the human instincts for competition, collaboration and exploration to engage users in learning or productivity activities.

Therefore, and in line with the maturity of the field, the presentation did not try to convey abstract arguments about the validity of Serious Games and Gamification approaches. Instead, it provided different examples of innovative applications with tangible results in different areas where they could make a significant impact. The full presentation can be found on the eMadrid Network website.

Our main conclusion is that the acknowledgment of Digital Game-Based Learning or Serious Games as an important field of study is important within the scope of eMadrid: while the network did acknowledge the importance of this field from its conception, the field has continued to grow enormously during the network’s lifetime. As part of our ongoing work of technological observation, eMadrid is keeping up to date with emerging trends in Serious Games, through its seminars, workshops and research activities.

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