Casual and Serious Digital Games for Learning – Some Considerations

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We receive requests for information about game-based learning development services. Customers have determined that using digital games is a good choice, but aren’t quite certain about whether it’s a casual or serious game they need.
There are pronounced differences between casual and serious games. I’d like to delve a bit deeper into differences I see as being more important when deciding which way to go. The differences between casual and serious games seem to lie squarely in two domains: Instructional Outcomes, and Use of Technology.

The sole purpose behind a digital learning game is just that, ‘learning’. The type of learning outcome desired most often than not will determine whether it calls for the use of a casual or serious game. Certain types of outcomes are better suited to casual games, while others are better suited to serious games. On the surface, it seems like casual games are suited for factual and conceptual knowledge, while serious games are better for analytical and softer skills. Having said that, I must mention that it’s possible to build games of either genre for a wide range of knowledge and skills. Procedural knowledge is best built into a simulation game, which can’t be classified as either casual or serious.

The technology used by either category of game also tends to vary considerably. Typically casual games are built on internet based technology platforms, predominantly Flash; whereas serious games tend to be custom developed for specific platforms to run as applications.
While the outcomes and technology differ, there is a link between the two. Quite simply, the need for sophisticated technology is proportional to the type of performance outcome the learning is aiming for.

Let’s look at some examples, ascending in sophistication of outcome and technology.

Cisco – The Binary Game

Designed to teach conceptual knowledge and some use about the binary number system. While progressing through the game, players start to recognize patterns and develop strategies in order to increase their score and stay in the game. These same strategies are the very same cognitive skills identified in learning goals

Celebrity Calamity – Casual Financial Literacy Game

Focused on teaching the key concepts in managing personal finances. It also attempts to influence behavior to avoid fees on cards and make good APR choices.

celebrity_calamity_game – Moneytopia

A serious game designed to educate about financial concepts and to influence spending and saving behaviors. Helps players understand the issues that impact personal finances and how finances can be successfully managed. The goal of the game is for the player to manage money through his/her game life.


You’ll notice from these examples that it’s quite clear that you’d use serious games where the game-play is intended to progressively improve skills and influence long term behaviors. While casual games are often used for content that has a short shelf-life, tends to become obsolete quickly, or is changing rapidly. This relation of game category to outcomes is incidental and arises more from the fact that companies are ready to spend more time and money on content that provides long term performance improvements that analytical and soft skills provide. This availability of time and money lets developers put in far more effort into games for those types of outcomes.

Similarly, casual games are great for factual or conceptual content where training departments are not willing to expend the time and money required to create a full scale (serious) learning game. While it may be possible to create a serious game for factual and conceptual knowledge, it’s not practicable in proportion to the performance outcome derived; i.e., spending too much money on too little measurable performance.

Casual games also tend to have lower barriers to entry when compared to serious game. Casual games are easy to play and require few instructions. This contrasts with the substantial time and commitment required to play and learn from a serious game. Serious games typically include complex user interface and interaction options; as a result game-play is far more sophisticated leading to a steeper learning curve.

A casual game can be picked up in minutes and tends to have a short play time; this makes them ideal in an environment where the only chance an employee probably gets to play a learning game is during brief breaks in the workday. Casual games tend to re-playable several times and this only enhances the learning they deliver; on the other hand, serious games are not easily re-playable due to their episodic/level based nature.

Spend time to carefully consider instructional outcome, game type, technology and cost before setting out to develop a learning game, it’ll be well worth your time.

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