The psychology of serious games

What is it that makes Serious Game such a powerful medium? What is it in the experience of playing a game that helps people learn what they might have otherwise forgotten, that motivates them through painful exercises and convinces them of views they might otherwise have discounted? There are many reasons for this and we will be going over some of the most important.

The feeling of purpose
One of the main elements in gameplay is the fact that the player usually has a ‘purpose’ they must fulfill. To kill a monster, reach a castle, finish a story, solve a puzzle. And next to the main purpose of a game it will often contain many smaller ones to take the steps in between. Any obstacles between the player and their purpose will usually be presented as a challenge. A challenge in a game, as everyone knows, is something that is meant to be overcome while having fun with it. People tend to feel most engaged when they are doing something that makes them feel victorious. As long as the flow of the game is good (and the difficulty level is not too uneven) and the player keeps getting the feeling that they are ‘winning’ (or at least that they will start winning soon), than the motivation to continue will be strong. Especially if the action that makes them win is ‘fun’.

People have problems in motivating themselves towards one of the purposes that serious games are used for (like health and education). The main problems are that working on these things can be very slow going, often tedious and sometimes even painful. The aim of ‘getting it done’ or ‘getting healthy is the motivation to keep going for the one doing the work. That doesn’t take away the fact that it is for almost everyone easier to keep focus on something they enjoy rather than on something they dislike.  To make the player enjoy themselves while their purpose is achieved, that is one of the greatest strengths of serious and applied games. The player can come back again and again without .

It is a common fact that many of the things we learn we don’t immediately use. We might not even use them for years to come or even not at all. Especially with the general education system of our time, youngsters learn many things they rarely or maybe never use in practice. Maintaining something you’ve learned that you never use in practice it is hard. Someone might follow a French class for example but they might not know anybody who will speak French with them and never go to France. The knowledge in such a case stays mostly theoretical and hard to maintain. It is when a student needs that knowledge for something, and uses it in different scenarios that it often gets the best chance to sink in. A game can (next to doing part of the teaching in the first place) offer these scenarios in a positive way. Give the player the chance to use their knowledge outside of a classroom setting, even if it’s only to ‘beat the game challenge’. A game can offer a player scenario’s and ‘real time’ happenings far beyond book learning. Instead of offering a player reasons why a political agenda is wrong a game can simply let them experience it for themselves (persuasive games, a type of serious game)

Serious games, have many more reasons we could get into (like learning complexity, immediate feedback and flow experience) why they are psychologically so effective. The ones mentioned however are definitely some of the most important.


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