Very serious video games

Valérie Lavergne-Boudier – Pierre Lagarrigue


How to avoid the chocolate-coated broccoli effects


Putting into perspective the pleasure of “learning by playing” is a truism that is often encountered in the literature and never challenged. It looks like the researchers in the domain of educational science agree on the evidence that  “Learning-through-playing is an efficient method of training for the simple fact that it combines fun and learning”. But the order of things is never questioned: is “fun” a prescription or a consequence of a good training?

In this paper, we present motivational factors which directly determine player’s commitment to games. We will see that serious games can largely benefit from videogame design requirements, and that digital training experiences should be design on the base of commitment rather than fun.


Serious game, commitment, autonomy, game design, digital training, digital experience, skills acquirement, video game.


“Edutainment”, is probably the most inappropriate term that can be used to describe work on educational games: for some researchers who have been around the EdTech field for many years, the term is familiar and they have no choice but to cope with it. This word transgression sounds as bad as it’s alter-ego “serious game”. During the years 2010, there had a buzz going around serious games for many good or bad reasons: beyond training, they were supposed to help engage, inspire, and motivate staffers. But serious games brought also many disappointments, too many games having failed into the trap of boring “edutainment”.

These oxymorons illustrate how education is constantly competing against entertainment and this has always been. The supposed truths such as “learning-through-playing is an efficient method of training for the simple fact that it combines fun and learning” are so common tropes in literature that other forms of thinking are overshadowed.

Of course, a person, at any age, will learn more easily while having fun: repetition, absence of stress, commitment, feedback are necessary elements for learning. But are these elements not typically essential prerequisites in games also?

Let us do a side-step with a simple question: is the “fun” really at the heart of a learning process? and in line with video-games, is the “fun” really at the heart of a video game experience? Is it the “fun” that triggers gamer’s concentration to the point that they can spend days and night behind their screens?


Nobody can deny that video games are addictive. But rather than focus on the dark side, let’s analyze the bright face of this phenomenon: we have all experienced intense emotional states, arising from bewitching books or captivating films. This same phenomenon, in even greater intensity, is brought to the fore when a player is unable to quit a game. Unlike a reader, the player is personally invested in the game’s storyline; without the player’s intervention, the storyline fails to materialize, and the player feels solely responsible for the evolution of «his» story and the situations in which he finds himself at every moment of the game.

These feelings of responsibility and autonomy are the principal reasons for a player’s addiction: a game designer’s expertise lies in his ability to maintain and strengthen the player’s commitment during each moment of the game. Pleasure is not the goal of a good game: it is only the consequence of more complex psychic mechanisms which, when mastered, trigger the feelings of satisfaction the gamer seeks.

Given the enormous financial stakes involved in producing games, the video game industry has paid very close to the success factors of games. Many researchers have therefore addressed these issues and the conclusions reached by research firms and consultants speak for themselves: a study by researchers in social psychology [RYA 01], based on 10,000 players, describes three motivational factors which directly determine a player’s commitment to a game, and thus ensure the quality of the game:

  • Experimenting to raise skill levels;
  • The feeling of complete autonomy in the progress of the game;
  • Quality in relation to other players.


The mechanism for raising skill levels is based on principles which are well known to game designers: this mechanism is a learning curve that happily lends its name to the question that concerns us: as shown in the graph below, the first missions of a game are always easy, in order to seduce the player by offering him an easy victory, all the while communicating the initial reflexes and simple rules that will enable the player to address further challenges. By successfully completing his missions in the game, the player progressively understands the process through which the various objects in the game domain are related, and progressively acquires an understanding of the underlying mechanisms of the game[GEE 02].

«Learning Curve»: the curve shows the player's increasing level of skill

One of the key principles of video games is the systematic reinvestment of skills and / or «powers» above. Each new level adds additional difficulties that force the player to places the player in situations of exploration again, but without the experience and powers he has accumulated throughout his previous missions, he will be unable to do anything. By using the powers has already acquired, or by mastering a particular technique (combat, puzzle solving), new game actions which will unlock higher levels in the game become possible. By mobilizing prior knowledge, the player can continue his progress, enter the dungeon and free his friend, flee on a boat, or combat increasingly powerful enemies.

Video games are based on two key principles:

  • Rewarding effort, evidenced by the acquisition of «powers»;
  • Increasing competence, evidenced by the reinvestment of the achievements of previous levels.


The more the player directly benefits from skills acquired earlier, the more involved he will be. Parallel feedback strengthens this feeling of accomplishment, adding emotional and visual rewards to the player’s intellectual satisfaction: visual effects, credit points, completion of collections, «cut scenes», etc.

Even more interesting, these rewards must be deserved; victory without effort brings no satisfaction and the player immediately loses interest in the game. Only because he has lost lives, resumed the game, devised various strategies for success, in other words, only because he was «beaten» intellectually can the player can enjoy his victory and become more deeply involved in the remainder of the game.

The game designer has to subtly control the level of difficulty in a game: if a game is too easy, the player will quickly switch to something more challenging, while making a game too difficult may possibly stimulate the player at first, but will leave him with the feeling that the effort required was disproportionately high in regards to the pleasure obtained. The immediate consequence will be a mixed recommendation, (gamers are by nature «connected» and «communicative» concerning their unparalleled passion), and this lack of enthusiasm will definitely compromise the commercial success of the game in question.

These findings refer to classic studies on gambling and pedagogy: Gonzalo Frasca [FRA 03] reminds us that a good game must «compel» the player. The concept of stress is actually invoked regularly when it comes to gaming. In Ralph Koster’s Theory of Fun [KOS 04] the author argues that the human brain enjoys playing as long as it can identify new mechanisms to win, which Koster calls «patterns». If these patterns are too easy to identify the player quickly becomes bored with the game. Conversely, if the patterns of a game are too complex, the player may not be able to identify them, become frustrated, and quit this game as well. This is the principle of the puzzle that, when insoluble, is abandoned.

A good game is thus the result of fine-tuning the level of difficulty of the game. A good game should neither allow the user to identify patterns too quickly, nor force him to spend too much effort to identify them.


A sense of autonomy is also a critical factor in the player’s pleasure. Autonomy is defined as an individual will to perform a task. In the case of a video game, the player has made personal choices in terms of the scenario and challenges to overcome, being a priori voluntary and motivated. This choice is guided by the player’s personality and he feels responsible for the challenges that await him. He therefore intends to conduct his adventure alone and without apparent control. If instructions are too numerous, if the rules of the game have too many conditions and restrictions, The player quickly feels trapped in “assisted” situations and abandons the game.

On the contrary, the player becomes ever more deeply motivated when he has the feeling that he is progressing independently and is accountable for his actions, his successes and his failures. This again is a challenge for the game designer: to create a game environment where a player feels an almost infinite freedom, leaving him free to deploy a variety of strategies, to orient his scenarios according to his desires, to define his own goals, and to assume his own powers.

A good game designer will design the scenario in such a way that the player feels truly free. In the video game industry, Will Wright, a pioneer of video games and engineering design calls for the following recipe:

“Respond dynamically to individual choices of players and never force them or anticipate any of their actions”.

Will Wright _ 1989

Commitment, autonomy and reinvestment of competencies are factors that stimulate the motivation and enjoyment of the player. Along with the quality of the narration and the graphism, it is the combination of all these factors that guarantees the success of the game. “Fun” is not a concern at this point: it naturally follows.


If commitment, autonomy and reinvestment of competencies are the top factors of a successful videogame, they are also the top criteria required for a good training session. The terms “commitment”, “challenges achievements”, “autonomy” are currently mentioned as holy grails within the community of education researchers. We all have experimented situations where we are fully immersed in a learning activity, because we have reached the so-called “state of flow” [CSI05]. Reaching the “state of flow” is not a matter of fun, but of engagement. The fun ensues. “Fun” is the result of a good conception; it should not be a requirement. [LAV06].

Considering the similarities between trainees and gamers, why not considering that videogames might be excellent training vectors, and why not promoting the ones that have proved their worth?

Lately, large entertainment companies have ventured into what might be considered more serious with meaningful content. Indie game developers have also brought attention to thought-provoking issues. Perhaps the time is right for an entertainment-education convergence, in which a game for entertainment can also be a game for training.


Rather than debating on weather edutainment gamification and serious gaming are efficient, we should trust the professionalism of game designers: videogames should be deployed for training target with no fear to name them.

The only requirement should be the presence of teachers or tutors along the training sessions with key missions: guarantee the serious of the training, facilitate the activity and lead classes discussions on both, the content and the overall shared experience.


[RYA 01] Ryan R., Rigby S., Przybylski A., “The Motivational Pull of Video Games: A Self-Determination Theory Approach”, Motivation and Emotion, vol. 30, n° 4, Springer Netherlands, Dordrecht, 2006.

[GEE 02] Gee J. P., What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy, 1st edition, Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2004.

[FRA 03] Frasca G., “Videogames of the oppressed: Videogames as a means for critical thinking and debate”, Master’s thesis for Information Design and Technology, School of Literature, Communication and Culture, Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, 2001.

[KOS 04] Koster R., A Theory of Fun for Game Design: What Games aren’t, Book Excerpt, Paraglyph Press, Phoenix, 2004.

[CSI05] Csikszentmihalyi M., Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Harperperennial ModerClassic, 1990

[LAV06] Dambach Y., Lavergne Boudier V., Serious game, révolution pédagogique, Hermes Lavoisier, France 2010.