Theories of Games and Interaction for Design (2: Education vs Learning)

Approximate Reading Time: 3 minutes

This is a re-posting of my reflection for the first course of the Graduate Certificate Program in Serious Game Design and Research at Michigan State University.

Please note: these posts are not intended as any kind of commentary on or assessment of the course I’m taking, or its instructor, OR of Michigan State University or the College of Communication Arts and Sciences, or the Department of Telecommunication, Information Studies and Media. They are solely my thoughts and reactions that stem from the readings.

Feel free to comment, disagree, or what have you.

Week 2

These are the readings for this week:

  • Ritterfeld, U. Cody, M & Vorderer, P. (Eds.). (2009). Serious games: Mechanisms and effects. New York: Routledge. [Ch. 2, 3, 4, 8]

These are the games:

 My Response

On page xv (Ritterfeld, et. al., 2009) Ben Sawyer says, “Too many people who work within, and study the notion of serious games are themselves casting too narrow a net.” The worst case of all is the notion of games for learning, because despite it being the most prevalent use, the very proponents of this use have often succeeded in leaving many audiences for their work as equating serious games only as games for learning.”

I have to wonder if the authors of this week’s readings caught that part of the preface. In fact, I can tell you from my own conversations with Ben that this is something that just drives him nuts. Serious Games are NOT synonymous with games for learning, or even with games for education.

I was surprised to see “Educational Content” as one of the primary categories for the classification of serious games (Ch. 2). It presupposes that ALL content in serious games is somehow, educational – even marketing, it seems. To me, this exposes a fundamental misapprehension about the nature of education and of learning. They are not the same thing.

First, allow me to re-post Ben’s own taxonomy of serious games, presented with Peter Smith at the Games For Health Conference in 2008 (

Now, while I would argue that learning is an integral part of ALL games (that is, after all how we get to the end of the game), I make fundamental distinctions between education and learning, without which I would suggest it is very difficult to get a proper handle on how to design serious games in general, and educational games in particular.

All education involves learning, but all learning is NOT education. Education is a special sub-category of learning and has several features that distinguish it as a particular kind of learning.

Learning happens all the time – as a species, it’s what we DO. Learning is in-discriminant: we can learn things that are bad for us as well as things that are good for us; we can learn things that are useLESS as well as things that are useFUL. What counts as Education, on the other hand, is determined by the society in which it happens. Education is a value-laden proposition. A medieval peasant would have been given an education that we likely wouldn’t  call education anymore, and what counts as education in Bhutan may bear little resemblance to a university degree here. That’s as it should be, and referring to all learning as education glosses over this important difference.

It is certainly true that one sub-group of serious games is educational games, and I often broaden this category in my own talks and writings to: games for learning. However, I have serious (pun intended) objections to referring to marketing as a form of education – propaganda maybe, but education: really?

Defining serious games as those designed for purposes other than (or in addition to) pure entertainment does not exclude entertainment games from being used for serious purposes, but I think it is important to define something based on its designed intent. If we don’t anything can become anything else, depending on how it’s used, and that’s not useful.

I do think educational games should be a distinct category of serious games, but it is a mistake to imply that all serious games have educational content. Casting the net too widely is also limiting.

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