11:29 AM

Press 'start' to begin new career: serious games offer valuable skills

Games — the word alone invokes images of children sitting in front of screens for hours. Generally, the word is not associated with adults who are engaged in constructive work. Nevertheless, gamification and "serious" games, which are defined as games with a specific, measurable learning objective, have become an instrumental tool for acquiring new skills in the workplace.

The use of gamification in education is on the rise, and so is the need for people with the ability to create motivating and challenging serious games that employ real-life scenarios and stories to enrich the learning experience.

"It's become an extremely efficient training method," said University of Houston Clear Lake's Associate Professor of Software Engineering Soma Datta, who is among about a dozen professors from across the university's four colleges who teach courses in the newly-available Serious Games and Simulations bachelor of arts degree.

Although UH-Clear Lake offers other interdisciplinary degrees across just two colleges, the Serious Games and Simulations degree is the first ever to consist of courses from all four — the Colleges of Education, Human Sciences and Humanities, Business and Science and Engineering.

Datta said her own research supports the idea that traditional training modules aren't as helpful in teaching skills needed in real-life situations as using games.

"It's become a pedagogical thing, for understanding concepts, gamification helps students understand and retain information better," she said. "In my own research, I am conducting a virtual microbiology lab which will mimic a real lab. We put experiments into the games, and computer science and software engineering students are simulating everything they will see in the lab while they're doing those experiments."

The pandemic, Datta said, was the biggest reason for the pivot to find alternative education models. In applying virtual gaming techniques to teaching, she believes the key is bringing experiences into the classroom and making them real.

"In a strange way, the pandemic turned out to be a silver lining," she said. "Students could not come to the lab in person. We showed that no matter what could prevent students from coming to the lab, they can still learn in a virtual lab with the experiments they need to learn put into the game."

She said the Serious Games and Simulations degree could be a differentiator because generally, computer science and software engineering students do not start out learning the game technology. "They'd be a little behind because they'd have to learn it first, then implement it," she said.

"This way, they're learning it, using it and applying it, receiving experiential learning. Now everything is simulated. If you're going to become a pilot, you'll train on a flight simulator. That's a serious game," she explained.

"You're playing with something, but you have to learn the skills and apply them. It used to be that medical students would practice skills on cadavers, but now those skills are taught more effectively using serious games," she said. "There's no end to the ways this degree can be applied."

Professor of Literacy, Library Science and Learning Technologies Jana Willis said her research in this area also supported the positive impact that games have in education. "I've spoken with teachers about their perceptions about serious games as educational tools," she said. "They're very supportive and they see where the games have changed their role. They're facilitators, not keepers of knowledge. The games allow students to work at their own pace. Students gain knowledge and then apply it immediately to be successful."

The assessment component in the games, Willis said, was the piece that helps monitor students' growth. "That evaluation element ensures students have stayed engaged and motivated. They learn the concepts, but it's the game that draws them in."

Willis said that across all industries, including military, petrochemical, fire prevention, police training — gaming supports learning and takes away the risk.

"Curriculum developers in education create serious games with learning objectives and outcomes. You build a curriculum first, then create a game that supports it. Each piece of the game addresses an element of the curriculum," she said. "The game itself is a complex curriculum when it's done. Without a curriculum designer, the game is just entertainment. But for curriculum experts, it's about meeting objectives."

Associate Professor of Psychology and Serious Games and Simulations Program Director Steven Sutherland said what makes this degree unique is its interdisciplinary nature.

"Collaboration is important, but in serious games and simulation, it's more than important — it's a necessity," he said. "Some people will become consultants, and in order to promote that, students will need to understand the business side of this, which could otherwise be lost."

"For people building games," he continued, "acquiring coding skills in computer science and engineering makes sense. And serious games are meant to train people and expect an educational outcome, so that's why classes in the College of Education make sense. Games will miss the point if students aren't learning the concepts."

From a human sciences and humanities standpoint, Sutherland said classes in psychology, art and human factors psychology would blend in well in the SGS coursework. "Art courses, digital media as it relates to art, and communication courses make students marketable and desirable hires," he said.

"Artists and designers are vital to creating the games," Datta said. "We need more. We can find coders and programmers, but without artists and designers, the game will not be engaging. The Serious Games degree plan offers a design track and a coding track. Without artists, no serious games can be completed."

For more information about the Bachelor of Arts in Serious Games and Simulations, go online.