“Serious Game” and “Commercially Successful Franchise” Are Not Mutually Exclusive

Katelyn Procci, Serious Games Spotlight No Comments

Katelyn Procci | November 16, 2012

To play a game is to learn the rules of the game world and to apply them in order to achieve objectives. This need to utilize knowledge during play is central to the effectiveness of serious games. If you can make an individual engage and apply content in a fun way, they learn it through exposure and practice, with the added benefit of enjoying the experience, which may encourage them to continue to play or to perhaps explore the content area further. Any game, then, can be a serious game as you have to at least learn something to play it. Valve’s Portal franchise is wildly popular and is a commercial success. It is an entertainment game – it was built because it is a great experience: the story is funny and engaging, and the gameplay is fluid, challenging and fun.

To play the game, you need to apply physics. There is no direct instruction in the game – through experimental play, the player begins to understand how physics actually operates. The Portal games, then, are entertainment games that teach physics and critical thinking skills through play. Valve has recognized this, and launched the Learn with Portals initiative, beginning with the Teach with Portals program.

Leveraging Portal 2 along with its easy-to-use puzzle editor, Valve is encouraging teachers to bring play to the classroom. Lesson plans and other ways to use the game are available online for free, and Valve has even gone as far as to give schools free copies of the game to use. The topics don’t stop at physics – there are lesson plans for other subjects such as math and language arts, with apparent plans to expand to chemistry and game design.

The project is new, and I have yet to find any published validation studies. Reports of individual cases of successes, however, are cropping up. For example, Cameron Pittman is a high school teacher that uses Portal 2 and has contributed his own lesson plans using the game to the project. Check out his blog at Physics with Portals. Still, it would be interesting to see some sort of peer-reviewed publication to increase the credibility of this effort and to strengthen the case of using games in the classroom.

I will leave you now with one of my favorite quotes, from Gabe Newell’s Games for Change 2011 keynote: “So there tends to be this distinction between games that are good for education and games that are going to be commerically successfully. I’m not really sure I buy into that.” It is clear that popular entertainment games can be utilized as serious games with the right implementation and a bit of creativity. Furthermore, the line between what is strictly a serious game and what is an entertainment game can, and will blur, as we as serious game designers begin to have the confidence and know-how to make all-around better games.


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