“I wonder if you (or anyone) could weigh in on the cost of serious games, and at what threshold of production/cost are we really talking about immersive simulations, rather than serious games?”

This was a comment post I received this week. As it happens, after an exchange of posts, he and I are not opposed on this subject but it was a timely reminder that there is a huge amount of accidental and deliberately created confusion in this space right now. I don’t believe that you can classify an application along the basis that it is either an ILS or a serious game. To do so would be to accept that they are entirely different beasts.

Ben Sawyer has sought to identify serious games by whether they are developed using entertainment games industry ‘game craft’. Whilst I recognize that the entertainment games sector has developed a strongly respected set of skills, principles and intellectual competency – and I do not seek to diminish that, nor do I claim that many ‘eLearning’ studios could replicate these easily – I know of many examples of ‘serious games’ that are awful in execution and ‘eLearning simulations’ which are superb. I’d also point out that this space has already delivered a multitude of examples that vary enormously in the scale (cost), the technology employed, the graphical fidelity, the ease of use, the learning design philosophies (e.g. very linear and rigid ‘instructivist’ examples and very open, exploratory ‘constructivist’ examples) and degree in which they seek to cover explict, well-defined learning topics versus loose ‘information/message promotions’. To this end I fail to see how any particular example can be easily classified as being either an ILS or a serious game.

I’ve just written a lengthy paper for the E-Learning Guild that seeks to “Demystify the design, development and deployment of Immersive Learning Simulations”. I used the term ‘ILS’ as the Guild has already done a research report that clearly found that eLearning professionals are much more comfortable with this term than ‘serious game’. This was, however, an exercise in using the terminology of your audience but in actual fact the 1,000+ Guild members whose data the conclusions were based upon clearly saw a huge variety in examples that they still considered to be ILSs.

I see ILS applications as a sub-set of a wider space, namely the serious games space. An ILS is clearly about learning whereas serious games can be used in a much wider context (e.g. marketing, brand building, advocacy, recruitment and message broadcasting). An ILS is likely to have learning objectives and approaches defined by and owned by someone from a training and development orientation whereas a non-learning application is probably going to be owned by a ‘game designer’.

We also have to recognize that there are other types of applications that people tend to see fitting in this space that may or may not use ‘game craft’ and may or may not be learning-focussed. These include ‘mini games’, advergames and quizzes. I think that mini games offer much to learning and non-learning organizational objectives and have a long way to go. I see advergame usage spreading like wild fire. I think quizzes, no matter how well-executed, are (in general) non-innovative and with limited scope for intellectual development.

There is a lot of talk about serious games delivering an ‘immersive experience’ and a perception that an ILS is not actually going to be immersive. I disagree with this as I see immersion as a quality that is used as a tool for a specific purpose not as a characteristic of the application per se. If you are designing for a disenfranchised, hard to reach community of learners than ‘game-like’ techniques (and immersion) may well be a pre-requisite. If you are designing for a highly motivated cohort of learners then there is less need to employ these techniques (and to instead focus on authentic simulation) yet this early stage analysis doesn’t by definition mean that you are embarking down an ILS or serious game route. Either way you are seeking to create a powerful experience that uses game and/or simulation techniques and which, no matter what skills, technologies or approaches are applied, still sits within the wider serious game space.

The one thing we must not do is to define an application by whether it is ‘big budget’ or whether it required C++ programming instead of Flash ActionScript. Scale and technology used do not tell us anything about the nature of the experience nor the degree of usefulness. Even if this was true, how could you possibly define a threshold above which (presumably) and application ceases to be an ILS and thus becomes a serious game?