From Serious Games to Serious Gaming (Part Six): Common Threads

This is the final installment in our multi-part series showcasing the serious game projects of the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program. We haven't exhausted our projects but this sample gives you a taste of the range of different paradigms we have deployed. Here, I offer my own thoughts about what these projects have in common, suggesting that they collectively represent a distinctive contribution to the field of games and education. Over the past decade, researchers associated with MIT's Comparative Media Studies Program have been exploring the pedagogical potentials of computer and video games. Rather than adopt a one-size-fits-all solution, we have explored different models for what might constitute the ideal learning game. In the process, we have tested different genres and delivery platforms and mapped alternative models of collaboration between academic institutions and commercial partners.

Underlying these games have been some core principles:

1. Our games are designed to fit within specific learning contexts, addressing the real-world problems that educators confront. Each represents a different strategy for addressing such factors as the structure of the school day, limited access to technology, the teacher's unfamiliarity with games, and integration within existing curricular frameworks, all of which might prejudice teachers, parents, or principles against game-based learning. Our goal is to develop games that can be used widely across a range of schools and communities, not simply prototypes for laboratory research.

2. Our goals are never to displace the teacher but rather to provide teachers with new resources for doing what they do best. Our games are part of a sequence of learning activities, introducing new concepts or providing experiences that can become the basis for further discussions and writing exercises. Game play often occurs outside of the classroom, much as homework extends and supports schoolroom learning. For example, the Palmagotchi encourages kids to keep an eye on their evolving ecosystems at odd moments throughout the day, while teachers can work through problems from the games to explain basic principles. Increasingly, our games are designed to support customization and localization, so teachers can adopt the games to their own instructional goals.

3. We share a belief that play represents a meaningful strategy for making sense of the world around us: the best games inspire a process of exploration and experimentation. As students play games, they test hypotheses about how the world works, revising them based on their experiences; they develop new strategies for solving problems; and they make new connections between previously isolated bodies of knowledge. These games are designed to tap what students already know (as occurs when they get into character for a role-playing game like Revolution), and they help young people master complex problems that might otherwise seem insurmountable (as when they cite multimedia materials to draw connections between current and historic events in iCue or when they tap different kinds of expertise to solve the real world challenges posed by Charles River City).

4. We seek to make every element of the game design intellectually meaningful and personally rewarding: from the knowledge transfer system in Revolution to the puzzle design in Labyrinth, from the card-based interface of iCue to the exchange mechanisms in Backflow. We want to make sure that students and teachers spend more time acquiring valued skills and knowledge and less time mastering the game technology.

5. We see game play as a social rather than an individual learning opportunity. We build into these games opportunities for students to share insights with each other (through, for example, the exchange of theories within the AR simulations or of strategies in the in-game FAQ in Labyrinth), and in the process, to foster peer-to-peer learning. Students are most likely to master information when they use it to solve problems and share it with others, articulating what they have learned.

6. Last, but certainly not least, we design our games to be fun. These games were designed by gamers and we've learned what we can from existing entertainment titles. A game that fails to engage the student will fail to motivate learning, no matter how rich its intellectual content may be.

Taken as a whole, these principles shift our focus away from the design and deployment of serious games and onto the processes and resources that support serious gaming.


Jenkins, Henry with Ravi Purushotma, Katherine Clinton, Margaret Weigel, and Alice J. Robison, "Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century," report prepared for the MacArthur Foundation, Fall 2006.

Squire, Kurt and Levi Giovanetto (Forthcoming), "The Higher Education of Gaming," Work in Progress, presented at Games, Learning and Society Conference, Madison, Wisconsin, 2005.

Francis, Russell. "Towards a Theory of a Games Based Pedagogy," Transforming Learning Experiences Online Conference, JISC Innovating e-Learning, March 2006.

Wright, Talmadge. "Creative Player Actions in FPS Online Video Games: Playing Counter-Strike." Game Studies Dec. 2002.