May 112011

Learning Game: The Evolution of the Learning Game

Learning Game: Andy Petroski is a co-coordinator of “>LEEF and Director and Assistant Professor of Learning Technologies at Harrisburg University.

When I was designing and developing my first games for learning in 2000, the framework of most serious games was fairly well established  . . . “An interactive activity to reinforce rote learning; built in Flash.”   Fast forward a decade-plus and the options and opportunities in games for learning have exploded.  The strategies for creating and using serious games has advanced.  No longer confined to rote learning at the end of a tutorial or even to the desktop, serious games come in all shapes and sizes.  While the desktop is still a primary delivery method, today’s experiences can be much more immersive.  And, there are some new and evolving ways to design, deliver and experience games for learning.

Alternate Reality Games (ARGs)
Alternate Reality Gaming is difficult to explain.  I found this out first-hand when we were recently proposing an ARG for a regional educational technology conference.   I think after seven (7) article references and three (3) meetings we were able to communicate the vision.  Well, we got the project anyway.

The simplest definition of ARGs that I’ve seen is by Brooke Thompson;  “Alternate Reality Gaming (ARG) is an experience that encourages players to interact with a fictional world using the real world to do it.”  The Wikipedia article also provides a good introduction to ARGs.

Essentially ARGs are an electronic scavenger hunt, built around a storyline, with some clues in the real-world and some in the virtual world (email, tweets, etc.).  ARGs are big at conferences (including an ARG at the “>LEEF event in June) as a way to create community and activity in between sessions.  ARGs for learning are also proving useful for orientations and team building.

I believe Alternate Reality Games are so difficult to explain, because they’re a “mish-mash” of activities and ideas that can’t necessarily be related to anything else (e.g “it’s like [blank]).  And, you can’t capture a screen or give someone access to a demo to “show” the game either.  You’ve really got to experience an ARG to understand ARGs.  Two shout-outs for ARG experiences

  1. Visit ARGNet ( for access to ARGs underway or in planning
  2. Thanks to the good people at Tandem Learning for a great ARG experience (Dr. Strangelearn’s Laboratory) at DevLearn in November.  The game inspired me to watch the movie – Dr. Strangelove.  I liked the game more than the movie!

Tandem Learning has submitted a proposal to present an Alternate Reality Game project case study at “>LEEF 2011.

Augmented Reality Games (ARG)
Yes, another ARG.  This time it’s Augmented Reality Games, not Alternate Reality Games.  Nothing like a dual purpose acronym to make things more confusing!  And, to make things even clearer, Augmented Reality is also a combination of the real world and the virtual world.  This one’s a little easier to explain however.  If you’ve ever watched NFL (or college) football, the yellow first down indicator is an example of augmented reality.  It’s a digital image that’s layered over the real-world to enhance the experience.  From a Ryan Kim article in the San Francisco Chronicle, “Augmented reality involves the layering of digital objects over a camera view of the world, allowing users to interact with an environment transformed by virtual items.

Right now, augmented reality is getting a lot of visibility from the entertainment sector as a number of the handheld gaming devices (i.e. Nintendo DS) are integrating augmented reality capabilities.  But, there are applications happening in learning as well.  Medical training, manufacturing training and device repair are three areas where augmented reality is having an impact.  Check out this video that demonstrates augmented reality for maintenance repair.   This example is more of an Electronic Performance Support System (EPSS), but game play elements could certainly be integrated.

Experience examples of cutting-edge technology like augmented reality in the high tech demo area at “>LEEF 2011.

Quick Response (QR) Codes
From Educause, “QR codes are two-dimensional bar codes that can contain any alphanumeric text and often feature URLs that direct users to sites where they can learn about an object or place.”  Check one out at   QR codes are primarily used to enhance a physical experience by providing access to digital content.  They can be part of print piece (magazine or newspaper), projected onto a screen or even displayed on clothing.  There are a number of QR Code generators available for generating your own codes (,, . . . and many more).  A smartphone camera, along with a QR decoder is all the end user needs to gain access to the hidden information in the QR Code.  A smartphone camera isn’t the only environment where QR codes are used.  QR decoding in the browser, on the desktop, is also available, but the QR Code activity started with mobile devices and is where the most use is occurring.

QR codes can be a way of distributing clues in an alternate reality game or a QR code might be utilized to launch a person into an augmented reality experience.  In addition, a QR code might be used in a variety of learning environments to provide more detailed information, at the learner’s request.  User manuals, location orientation and device operation are just some of the ways in which QR codes could be used for learning.  Check out some additional ideas on the Instructional Design Fusions blog.

Social Games
The social game genre primarily brings us back to the confined desktop (or mobile device) for gaming, but in a much different environment than asynchronous gaming experiences.  And, while alternate reality games could be considered social games, they don’t necessarily depend on others for game play.

Social gaming has accelerated with the use of social networks, primarily Facebook.  If you don’t play any social games, but are on Facebook, you’ve probably received notifications from friends playing Farmville or Mafia Wars.   Nick O’Neil identifies five (5) elements of social games in his Social Times article.  Social games by their nature (1) include multiple players (2 to 2,000+), are (2) turn-based, (3) include awareness of other players’ actions in the game, are (4) casually played (intermittently) and are (5) based on social platforms.  Check out Inside Social Games for the best Facebook games of 2010.

While the use of social games for learning in education and business are just beginning to develop, the social game approach has potential for impact in knowledge building, skill development and attitude change.  Social games have been used for orientations and learning about the rainforest.  Ayogo Games has recently launched HealthSeeker™ for Facebook, with the goal of helping adults with specific lifestyle and nutritional challenges make more informed lifestyle decisions.

Ayogo Games will be submitting a proposal to present a social game project case study at “>LEEF 2011.

Mind Games
We’ve all been playing mind games since we were two years old, and some still do more than they should.  But, this type of mind game is a little different.  And, unlike the other game experiences described previously in this post, mind games have more to do with the input device than the game principles or game play, at this point.  Companies like Neurosky and Emotiv have developed brainwave sensory input devices that can be used for controlling computer applications and games with your brainwaves.  Games specifically for brainwave sensory input have also been created, like Cortex Arcade and MindFlex.

Education and corporate training is not being impacted by brainwave sensory input yet.  But, businesses are using the technology for research and there are entertainment games available.  It won’t be too long before you’re completing a course in negotiation or effective communication and your sensory input (concentration and emotion) are part of the training experience.

Experience examples of cutting-edge technology like brainwave sensory input in the high tech demo area at “>LEEF 2011.

The application of game mechanics to everyday business, commerce and communication has been termed “Gamification.”  According to Gamification.orgGamification is the concept that you can apply the basic elements that make games fun and engaging to things that typically aren’t considered a game.”  Why would you want to do that?  Well, good games are engaging, interactive, immersive, collaborative and challenging; most activities in everyday life are not.  Gamification is an opportunity to enhance normally mundane experiences for increased motivation and increased performance.

Frequent flier programs are an example of Gamification and a more recent phenomenon, badges in FourSquare is another.  Companies like Seriosity, Gamify and Natron Baxter Applied Gaming are bringing Gamification to the business with immersive onboarding, gamified applications and gamified business operations.  In his “Gamification Explained at GoogleTechTalks” post Karl Kapp points to a video from Gabe Zichermann on the changing rules of engagement to begin the discussion on how Gamification might become a bigger part of learning solutions in the future.  Check it out and think about how game mechanics in education and training might help increase motivation and performance.

Nathan Verrill, Co-Founder of Natron Baxter Applied Gaming will be the opening day keynote at “>LEEF 2011.

Attend “>LEEF on June 16-17, 2011 to experience Nathan’s  session on “Fun is Not the Enemy of Work.”Also learn more about all of the opportunities in games, simulations and virtual worlds for learning and see examples of many of the new game types highlighted in this post at “>LEEF 2011.

Join us at the Learning and Entertainment Evolution Forum on June 16-17 to explore the changing nature of games, simulations and virtual worlds. “>LEEF is an interactive professional development event that explores the use of games, simulations and virtual worlds for learning.  Go to to learn more about the event!


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Tom McDonald,; 608-788-5144; Skype: tsmw5752

learning game,McDonald Sales and Marketing, LLC