Guest Contributor: Jeannie Novak, Lead Author & Series Editor, Game Development Essentials.

In 2003, while speaking at the University of Southern California’s Teaching, Learning & Technology conference, I noticed more than a few visibly uncomfortable educators in the audience. I had recently completed my Master’s thesis on using massively multiplayer online games (MMOs) as online distance learning applications, and I was providing a summary of my findings. The notion of any game posing as a learning management system (LMS) was difficult enough for most to parse—especially at the time—but those who weren’t well versed in the workings of MMOs were even more bewildered. The idea involved simple economics: using one solution to address the following two problems:

  1. Students who had foregone the face-to-face interaction associated with on-ground classroom instruction to take classes online needed more immersive, experiential learning tools to stay engaged.
  2. MMOs attracted players who were willing to sacrifice much of their personal lives to ensure their availability 24/7. This posed an obvious problem: How many MMOs could possibly compete in the marketplace after just one (e.g., World of Warcraft) attracted the majority of players?

The solution?

Turning the online classroom into an MMO would allow students to log onto an LMS that behaved like a game—and in turn, more game developers would have the opportunity to develop various MMOs for specific courses, programs, and educational institutions—thereby widening the MMO market.

A few years later, I attempted to address these issues in a project that involved Second Life (SL) and a team of educators, students, and industry volunteers. The idea was to create a virtual environment that could be accessed by students as a course. In that environment, students would become players—focusing on solving narrative mysteries tied to gameplay systems that were quite sophisticated at the time. The project was ahead of its time; again, the notion of learning within a game environment was beyond comprehension—even though our tech team provided a “bridge” by writing code that allowed results to feed into the LMS.

Although I still hear from students encountering issues with their online distance learning experiences to this day, the good news is that many developers and educators alike have embraced in the alternately lauded and derided term, gamification—incorporating its associated toolset into the on-ground classroom. My hope is that this state of mind will fuel a paradigm shift to online distance learning solutions as well.

Here are some thoughts on how educators can use games as instructional tools in all types of classrooms:

Level 1: Playing to Teach: Educators should play games in a variety of genres—becoming sleuths as they uncover engaging elements of play. Consider these questions: What keeps you relentlessly and repeatedly launching those birds toward their snorting foes? What compels you to play several word games simultaneously—with friends or total strangers? Now consider this: Assume that every game is a teaching tool… even if by accident. Take a look at any game. What are you learning at every turn—even if it’s “stealthy” or covert? If you can figure this out, you’re in the right mindset.

Level 2: Learning to Game: Educators must think like game designers. In fact, educators in all disciplines should take game design classes focusing specifically on gameplay and game mechanics. (Narrative is part of all this, but that’s an entirely separate blog post!) Even when limited by the tools at their disposal, educators should explore engaging alternatives involving game design principles.

Level 3: Creating the Experience: Educators should consider creating serious games for their students. At the risk of bringing up the term again, an initial step might involve gamifying the classroom—which has actually been accomplished by many successful educators long before the word was coined; this might involve a reward system and team competition. Tools might include anything from collecting, gifting, prizes, and resource management to higher-level challenges involving leadership skills and problem solving. The final step would involve creating an original, customized serious game—taking into account the needs associated with the students and subject matter. In the Summer of 2011 and 2012, I worked with groups at Lehigh Carbon Community College and the University of Southern California’s Information Sciences Institute, respectively (both of which received National Science Foundation grants for these activities and related research), to help educators (primarily in mathematics) do just this. There is keen interest in this area—and educators should explore these options as part of their ongoing professional development.

Although “serious” is the accepted standard term to denote games that are intentionally created for non-entertainment purposes (e.g., education, marketing, health, recruitment), keep in mind that all successful games must be fun or they’ll fail. I would argue that serious games have the burden of being even more enjoyable and engaging than traditional, commercial games: Not only do they sometimes compete in the commercial marketplace, but they have more sophisticated end goals (involving specific learning outcomes), which means that losing even one player translates into a much more painful “fail.”

Companies behind popular game development tools are taking the lead in serious game development. GameSalad’s Creator software is a drag-and-drop tool that allows non-programmers to create compelling games. The Cengage Learning title The Official GameSalad Guide to Game Development contains a chapter devoted to how this tool can be used to create serious games of all types. Another upcoming Cengage Learning title, Serious Game Development, says it all.

I’m now in the midst of developing an original “serious” game of my own. I can only hope that players will have fun while learning something new in the process!

Jeannie Novak is Lead Author and Series Editor of Cengage Learning’s widely acclaimed Game Development Essentials series (with more than 15 published titles), Co-Founder of Novy Unlimited, and CEO of Kaleidospace, LLC (dba Indiespace). She has provided curriculum development and consulting services for game technology companies, serious game developers, research institutions, and colleges/universities such as UC Berkeley, USC’s Information Sciences Institute, Alelo, and GameSalad. Jeannie was Program Director of Game Art & Design and Media Arts & Animation at the Art Institute Online and has taught and developed game courses at UCLA, Art Center, DeVry, Westwood College, ITT, and Santa Monica College. She has participated in the Online Gameplay and Connectivity selection committees for the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences and has served on the Executive Boards of Women in Games International (WIGI) and the International Game Developers Association (IGDA). Jeannie holds a BA in Mass Communication from UCLA and an MA in Communication Management from the Annenberg School at USC. She is also an accomplished composer, songwriter, and performer (piano/voice). 

Photo Credit: Luis Levy

Thinking through the three levels Jeannie outlines above, how could you use games as instructional tools in your classroom? What unique student needs and course goals would you need to take into account in order to create them? Share your ideas with us in the comments section below, or e-mail us at