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serious play games

author: @aestranger

Reading time: 11 minutes

A look at Serious-Play, -Games & Game-based learning


Somewhere in the world, there is a person, an adult, probably someone who has a well-paying job, maybe even has a spouse and kids. The company they work for, or perhaps they chose it themselves, has sent them off on a “training course” of sorts. The person is sitting at a table, with colleagues, or people they’ve met for that day, and in front of them is a selection of choices. The choice in front of them is what “game” to “play”. Will they choose the selection of Lego blocks in front of them? Or will they choose the bag of varied dice, from six-sided to twenty-sided? Or maybe choose the deck of cards, traditional or tarot?

Whatever they choose, the rise of serious play and serious games as a vehicle for training in higher education and corporate education is unavoidable, which is a good thing, to be honest. With a general increase of interest and ubiquity of gaming and the benefits, it has, it’s one more way for individuals to learn concepts and skill that may have otherwise eluded them if given in a more traditional environment.

Though despite this growth in serious play, serious games or game-based learning, to appropriate an umbrella term, for now, there are people that may read the above parable and think well learning or work isn’t meant to be fun. At least in their view fun possibly means silly. And others may read it and think that with the word serious added to it, it means it’s a game that isn’t fun, which possibly then means boring, or worse; hard work.

The term serious, when applied to the world of game-based learning, does not mean a lack of fun, it just refers to the fact that the main priority or objective is not entertainment, but learning. But good learning can still be fun and entertaining. The mistake that many make, is to think that fun and learning are mutually exclusive. They only become so if done badly.

Think of it in terms of learning and riding a bicycle — the primary objective of learning and riding a bicycle is to not fall while going from A to B. But riding a bicycle is also a lot of fun (at least for most people, once they’ve learned to do it).

Why game-based learning now?

So, why are more and more people going for game-based learning now? Well for one, it’s another option in conveying information to people, for whom the traditional method does work. But a more specific reason that is inherent to the nature of play and gaming is that it is far more engaging and motivating. Traditional methods tend to be fairly dry in delivering information, and often one-sided, being taught to, rather than with. Games & play are more interactive, more personal, often with in-person training and instant feedback on the actions that the players take.

The benefits of game-based learning are thus:

· Story

People enjoy a good story. This is pretty essential to help people connect with the experience and with each other.

· Interaction

People don’t always tend to learn in a vacuum, real-life interactions are essential, and being able to interact and work with others is meaningful and fun.

· Safe Environments

Games & play offer a safe space to practice and test ideas without long-term negative consequences and/or punishments for failing. Naturally, in a good game, there still are risks and consequences to success and failure, but they are generally positive, neutral, meaningful and offer learning with the aim of improving.

· Interdisciplinary skills

Games & play require people to use a much wider variety of skills and knowledge than what they would normally use during a regular day. An example of a variety of skills that they could use all in one setting is practicing and improving upon information recall, data/pattern recognition, communication, quantitative skills, as well as working under pressure and complex problem-solving. Many “regular” situations may not offer so much variation in one single experience.

· Reflection

Any good learning experience always has a moment of reflection, but when involved in a game-based learning experience, the reflection is practically inherent. In a sense, being removed from the “regular” creates a situation for (self-) reflection. One could view it as a form of meditation or mindfulness, a way of focusing the mind on a task and allowing for a state of reflection.


6 Points to keep in mind with game-based learning

With the list of benefits above that come with using good game-based learning, one should always keep these six points in mind when developing, choosing and/or implementing a game-based learning experience. Be it for corporates, higher education or even K-12 type education.

1. Emphasis on learning

It’s about the learning objective through a vehicle of fun. But it needs to remain challenging a true to its purpose. Whether that is to teach the reason behind the Fall of the Aztec empire or how to work as a team under pressure and manage a corporate crisis, it doesn’t matter, as long as that goal is achieved at the end.

2. Build communities

As I said earlier, people tend to not want to learn in a vacuum. Face-to-face, group-based, game-based learning is still one of the most effective ways of learning. We like learning from each other and therefore building a community is far easier. When it’s done online, you have a bit more work cut out for you, communities need to be seeded and nurtured, initially by the implementer. Hopefully to catch on and continue organically.

3. Communicate with the players

This may seem self-evident, but many people think that once they implement the experience, they can just sit back and watch it happen. Naturally, as a facilitator, you need to observe and take notes, that’s good pedagogy, but if it’s a game you need to also interact and ensure the experience keeps flowing. As any good Game Master in an RPG experience knows, the communication and interactions are what bring the game to life.

4. Reward appropriately

Here we’ve very much got the modern gamification line, points, badges, leader-boards, trophies are all fine to track progress, but they aren’t rewards. Make sure you reward your players with something meaningful, and that it is of intrinsic value.

5. Set a time period

Despite what many may believe in the world of education, business, storytelling; people do like and want closure. Every good thing must come to an end. Both within the high-paced world we live in, but also for the purpose of learning, it needs to be situated within a specific time-frame. Games with a narrative are perfect for this, as there is a beginning, middle, and end to every game and story. Free-form play is great for creative and internal expression, but it needs to move to a point to have any value in learning and the reflective process.

6. Metrics — success & failure

Games & play are great and learning while having some fun is also great. But you need to be able to measure the effectiveness of what you have been facilitating and what your participants have learned. Be sure to know what your objectives are from before you start and choose the correct metric models to measure how much of those objectives were achieved by the end of the experience.

Forms of Game-based Learning

Serious Play — Lego

One of the most popular game-based learning experiences currently, in the form of serious play, is the Lego: Serious Play (LSP) workshops. Possibly one of the reasons why it’s so popular at the moment is because of its ease and relatability among people of any age. Even if for some unfortunate reason you weren’t able to play with Lego when you were a child, it’s pretty easy to grasp the basic concept of clicking together various blocks.

To give some background to the LSP experience, let’s look at its purpose, as stated on Wikipedia“To access and make knowledge, wisdom, and perspectives shared through model construction and storytelling. To facilitate a constructive dialogue (ideate, reflect, and strategize) about a given topic/ issue.” Having had the opportunity to speak to various LSP facilitators, this broadly fits what I’ve come to understand from the experience as well. It is essentially a physical vehicle to represent abstract ideas so that you yourself and those around can better grasp said the idea.

The physicality of it is also what makes the experience so appealing as a vehicle, it is by definition hands-on, and participants in the experience work as individuals or teams, but they are a group that is interacting. To once again borrow from Wikipedia for the sake of brevity: “Participants take on roles as an individual builder, storyteller, active listener, co-constructor of physical models and metaphorical meaning. Non-competitive. The physical constraints of the building system put emphasis on metaphors and meaning-making and take pressure off making something that resembles.” It’s a free-form exploration of metaphorical concepts in a group environment, and it puts the emphasis on participants needing to create their own stories, which embeds the learning far more effectively.

As it is a form of play, it is only a semi-structured experience, allowing the participants the freedom to explore their own ideas and in turn relate them to the rest of their group. Though not exclusive to, but the overall concept lends itself more towards organizational change experiences and determining internal drives and questions within individuals in a company.

Serious Games — the rise of the RPG

Traditionally the moniker of “serious games” has been attributed to video games that have a learning element to them. With the rise in popularity of concepts and workshops like that of Lego Serious Play and with the surge of RPG experience with a specific resurgence of games like Dungeons & Dragonsthat illustrate the use of RPG’s within education and business, the moniker could possibly be broadened to include non-digital game experiences as well. What can essentially be called live-action RPG experiences? Though this kind of LARP isn’t the dress up in a medieval costume and re-enact the battle of Agincourt kind. More the placing participants in an environment they recognize but are fundamentally unfamiliar with and allow them to use and practice skills that are relevant to the objective of the implementation of the experience.

The purpose therefore of such an RPG, or rather let’s call it an Alternate Reality Experience (ARE), can at times be fairly broad depending on the objectives of those facilitating or implementing it. But generally, it aims at increasing inter-personal interaction, improvising in unknown situations, reacting to unknown and unfamiliar situations and determining decisions/ judgment calls through spontaneous, fluid and volatile scenarios.

At its core, ARE’s are group-oriented, involving the participants actively, they themselves become storytellers within an overall narrative. It is essentially a non-competitive environment, which allows them to step outside of their comfort zones. Being non-competitive is not to say that there isn’t any agency, outcome or consequence. With a good facilitator or game master, the experience can be quite pressured.

As with similar role-playing experiences, there is a type of structure and framework to facilitate the experience. If you are familiar with role-play simulationsD&D or have interest in other models, one could relate to these types of frameworks. Beyond that basic structure, the experience becomes very open-ended, highly explorative, and this is all due to the fact that the participants have to deal with unknown paths and outcomes, as facilitated by the game master.

The reason I believe that these types of role-playing experiences are good and should be utilized more is that they are better for framing learning experiences through a narrative framework, that gets learning objectives and content across more effectively. While allowing participants a space to practice and improve necessary skillsets.


Interacting as a group

Regardless of which aspect of game-based learning is more applicable to you, there are three basic points you should be aware of. Let’s quickly look at why these three basic points are important for groups interacting, while having fun and challenging experiences, and why it’s good for everyone in and outside of the group:

1. Exploration

Whether its physical or imagined, exploration is fun and exciting for anyone of any age. The act of exploration combines both mystery and discovery, and everyone enjoys a good surprise. Combined with this are puzzles and problem-solving, which gives players a sense of accomplishment and pride when they discover the right answer.

2. Interaction

We’ve covered this a bit, but it is one of the most important aspects of these game-based learning experiences, especially if you plan on using more RPG oriented experiences. People do get excited from working together, interacting, planning, discussing and executing ideas or plans.

3. Action

And it’s naturally thrilling for the group if the plan actually works, or when it fails, they can reassess together and devise a newer, better plan.

Let’s talk about cost & quality

I do want to touch upon this briefly, as often with anything that has the word “game” or “play” in it is usually seen as something cheap and not worth the overall experience. In addition to that, it is also often seen that “digital” versus “live-action” is expensive or cheap.

A quality experience will always have a price tag associated with it. You should always question whether an experience is still good just because it’s sold with a different explanation. A “video” game does not have less development time than a “live-action” game, so question why one would cheaper than another, just because it’s suddenly digital or because it’s analog? Just because the word “game” appears in it, or “role-play” does not detract from the value of the experience.

In addition to that, when thinking about the quality of the experience and it’s value, always view the experiences provided by serious play, serious games and game-based learning with a critical eye — make sure the objective of the game is actually learning and not that the learning is the medium for entertainment — as this video by Lee Sheldon explains at the start Math Space Invaders — the point is to learn math, but all the players learn is how to be better at shooting alien invaders with numbers on them, not math.

And naturally, make sure that the learning objective is also the right one for you and your team/company. Picking a game like the math space invaders one because it’s fun and game-learning, and then using it within a history class would not be the correct use of it either.


The takeaways for I’d like you to have from this are that game-based learning offers immersive experiences with multiple layers of value for any purpose. The vehicles themselves, like Lego Serious Play or Serious Games with RPG elements, are incredibly versatile in how they can be used, they offer:

· Interaction

· Interdisciplinary skill training

· Self- /and Group Reflection

· Safe Test Environments

Just ensure the choice of objective, narrative and use suit what you want from it, and that the end result is indeed a learning experience with fun, not an entertaining experience but ultimately an empty one for all those involved.

I hope that this piece has given you some food for thought and helped improve your own methods or at least offered a different viewpoint to consider.

Please do check out the other posts on æ, and please do leave a comment or contact us if you have some ideas of your own that you wish to discuss or if you would like to see other topics discussed.

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2 Responses

    1. The difference is fairly nuanced and dependent on the individual that you speak to about it.
      In my opinion there is very difference, as you may have noted from the post. I feel that the differences really only occur in the activities that fall under those two monikers.
      Serious Play usually takes the form of semi-unstructured creativity, such as the LEGO Serious Play, here group participants are instructed to enter free-form creativity to represent their thoughts.
      Serious Games on the other hand are far more structured with rule sets, end conditions and win or fail states.
      Hope that answers the question.

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