Taking context into account in the design of serious games

How to predict the "nice" side of the game, its educational impact even before its realization?

Taking context into account in the design of serious games: objectives of the thesis

The main objective of this thesis project is to qualify the context of game design in order to model and identify the variables of the design context, the variables of the game context and the relationships between these two types of variables. This general objective is broken down into the following program of deliverables:

  • determine a method ofactivity analysis and participatory observation of game design;
  • provide a typology comparative game design methods, specifying their nature and the characteristics of the games designed through them, but also the context variables on which they work;
  • draw up a table of variables contextual insights into the design and game from the field provided by the company, namely universities and industry and health actors;
  • produce a typology design choices and a method of calculating the impact of these choices on the final product according to the expected objectives;
  • transpose the field observations made inductively towards a proposal for a method of generic design (and not universal).

Project status: University / company request awaiting ANRT feedback.

Business : AUDACE digital Learning.

Supervisor : Thibaud HULIN, University of Franche-Comté, France

Co-director of the thesis: Eric Sanchez, TECFA, University of Geneva.

Laboratory: ELLIADD – Editions, Languages, Literature, Computers, Arts, Didactics, Speeches

Context and serious games: an introduction

The serious games industry continues to grow and questions research when it comes to designing and evaluating its productions. Despite the proven pedagogical contributions, the design of serious games remains a long and expensive process. This is partly linked to the diversity of design methods, types of educational resources and identified needs. To reduce these costs, we must study and optimize serious games at the level of their design method, in a comparative way, and by identifying the specificities of the context of learning.

Elements constitute the game: objectives, professional or personal situations, characteristics of target audiences, an environment more or less favorable to learning. Although the multiplicity of these context-related variables pleads against the idea of an abstract universal game method, we believe that a project of generalization of design processes is possible starting from the analysis of the experience of a concrete game creation service. The objective is to formalize the creative processes to improve their efficiency, to guarantee and facilitate the production of new serious games.

Pedagogical building blocks for predicting pedagogical effects

Our hypothesis is that it is possible to identify pedagogical bricks that meet the needs expressed, then to consider the value of these different bricks in relation to the foreseeable contextual elements. The possibility of certifying the pedagogical relevance of design choices in advance makes it possible to reassure and facilitate innovative pedagogical investments. This approach is essential for training centers, teachers or even studios that develop serious games.

First, this thesis aims to perform a comparative and critical study of design methods. Then, secondly, the doctoral student will carry out an analysis of the activity of creating serious games in the studio based on participant observations. Thirdly, this approach will make it possible to propose a generic design method of serious games capable of predicting its pedagogical relevance, and of accelerating its realization. Fourth, the thesis will characterize the context, the resources and the activities that will be used according to the learning context. Fifthly, the doctoral student will implement this method in the design of a serious game and will evaluate the results of his approach.

The fields offered by the company are serious games in the fields of health, industry and initial and continuous training.

Serious games and context: brief state of the art

The serious game is a learning artifact (Alvarez, 2019; Quinche, 2020), but also an educational resource for the trainer and the teacher (Huchette et al., 2017; Plumettaz-Sieber et al., 2019). As such, it is multi-faceted (Abed, 2020), because it uses play content both to transmit knowledge and to raise awareness among players.

In this document, we will first present the global, industrial and scientific context of research on games. Then we will present the land of the thesis.

We emphasize here the importance of developing a holistic approach or generic game design. It is a question of constructing and then measuring the impact of the learning context on the design method mobilized during the creation of a serious game.

The development of the serious game industry

The gaming industry is experiencing a high rate of annual growth estimated at 15%. It is developing particularly in Asia (China, Japan, South Korea), the United States, Europe (UK, France, Italy, Spain) and Canada.


The mobile phone is an important mediator (200 million mobile gamers in the United States, 60% of the population), as well as the development of 5G. The Covid effect, although partially threatening this industry in a context of economic crisis, has however increased demand for video games

Indeed, health conditions and economic growth have impacted the field of education and training. Teachers who have developed remote work with pupils and students have sometimes accessed many databases of games or tools to create games

Example : http://serious.gameclassification.com

From MOOCs to serious games

After the wave of MOOCs or in parallel with their development, educational institutions are asked by manufacturers to invest in games. Thus, the Grenoble Ecole de Management (GEM) follows a development and monitoring program for its own games in conjunction with industrial players. Development programs from major game platform publishers such as Unity offer partnerships with public institutions and offers free licenses. All sectors are concerned: serious games are also developing in various fields such as the environment, cultural mediation, marketing or health, but also military training or crisis management, recruitment, or scientific exploration.

Research on games has highlighted the benefits, but also certain limitations. Thus, the meta-study by Koh (2020) raises the fact that we need to produce research with more rigor to validate the results obtained. As for them, Gorbanev et al. (2018) underlined the dominance of behaviorism in this field, but also of cognitivism in cognitive strategies. However, these paradigms reduce the field of action of serious games either to the behavioral domain or to the cognitive domain, ignoring the role of other aspects related to motivation or the acquisition of transversal or lasting skills.

The serious game in health

The field of health has been particularly invested. Researchers in the field have produced interesting tools to assess the quality of serious games, such as the Medical Education Research Study Quality Instrument (MERSQI) (Smith & Learman, 2017). In practice, health educators most often favor simulations, quizzes, knowledge retention and repetition to acquire skills.

Because the use of sophisticated games does not necessarily meet health needs. The gaming industry is not left out of these actions. There are different games dedicated to the health of Persons with Reduced Mobility. Publishers have specialized in accessible games, such as Hopoys, Keski, Accessijeux or FAF-LR. Others aim more specifically to raise awareness of disability, such as Handipoursuite, Keski Jeunesse or Collock. These are sometimes simple games to implement in schools, or transposed traditional games, such as 16 games offered by Handicap International.

The serious game in continuing education

The industry sector is also greatly impacted by the development of the use of games as a resource for learning in the context of continuing education. Several approaches to serious games have thus been developed, based on the adaptation of existing games by integrating information to be learned and practices to be mastered (Abed, 2020). Or, by designing tailor-made games for the company, as illustrated in particular by the “Living together diversity” projects of the Renault company…

…or even in “What are we risking? of the SNCF group:

The game is also a way for the training sector to reassure the population impacted by a project who are worried about the effects of the latter, through a playful simulation (Schleifer et al., 2019). Or, the game can promote activities carried out by a company and gain visibility, as was the case with the Hellopolys game.


from the operator Orange, or the Reveal game of the L'Oreal group. This practice even concerns unsuspected sectors such as defence, as illustrated by the National Guard's request to My-Serious-Game studios to design the game “National quiz! The challenge ! ». Considering the rapid development of the gaming sector, training organizations had to adapt their offer to the needs of industrialists requesting this type of teaching practice (Charbonnier & Enlart, 2014; Vacaflor et al., 2020), sometimes integrated into more generalist platforms such as Learning Management Systems (LMS).

The serious game in initial training

At university or in higher education schools, the demand for serious games is increasing, as in the training sector. In France, we can observe the use of serious games in various fields of training such as mechanical engineering (Galaup, 2022), computer science and digital communication (Plante, 2021), pedagogy in general (Laplanche et al., 2019) or linguistics (Popineau, 2017). These uses are intended to motivate students in their learning (Muratet et al., 2021) and to adopt a different, more concrete point of view, making it possible to get closer to an object often studied from a theoretical point of view (Linder, 2006; Ma, 2021).

Some university educational services are committed to the issue of serious games, like at the University of Aix-Marseille according to which "[...] the vocation of a Serious Games is to invite the user to interact with a computer application whose intention is to combine aspects of teaching, learning, communication or information, with playful springs from video games. Such an association aims to give a didactic or formative content. Thus, certain games have made themselves known by opening up from the university to the general public, such as JTKAP game from the University of Rennes or even Campus Explorer game from the University of Poitiers.

Diversity and Serious Game Context

The presence of serious games in a wide variety of fields therefore no longer needs to be proven, while a significant amount of research has been carried out on the subject. This research aims in particular to identify the nature, the effects and the possible modes of evaluation of the game. However, when the research tries to verify the effects and the nature of serious games, it compares very diverse productions, from different design methods, more or less involving the sponsors and the target audience in the design process. This diversity of the context of production and also of the context of use leads to different observations from one game to another, which makes the comparison between games long and difficult, with the risk of arriving too late, once games are created.

Also most often, the research question focuses on the evaluation of design choices with regard to the expected performance. This is to identify how the design method adopted can have an effect on customer satisfaction, but also on the quality of the product measured by the summative evaluation of user skills, and on the profitability of the approach by compared to the investment made.

The need to identify and measure variables in the context of serious gaming

Research in game design aims to work on emotions, on innovations (virtual reality headsets, original solutions against disability or for mobility, etc.), immersion situations, etc. Faced with the significant growth of studies on serious games, various meta-studies have attempted to take into account the results of the last ten years, identifying and measuring variables deemed positive or negative from the analysis of different contexts. The studies listed here underline the importance of several factors in evaluating the results obtained: perceived usefulness, clarity of objectives and ease of use, the role of game mechanisms for learning, realism, quality of instructions, feedback, pedagogical content, taking into account the profile of learners (Zhonggen, 2019).

This last meta-study observes that scientific studies on serious games mainly emphasize their benefits in education. Djaouti (2016) noted that games can positively impact other variables such as: learner motivation, support for learning by trial and error, learning rhythms, or the number of pedagogical interactions between learners. Zhonggen (2019) identified yet other advantages among those highlighted by researchers: approaching scientific concepts, improving cognitive skills, increasing the feeling of pleasure during learning, improving attitudes towards the subject area, produce flexibility to access the content covered, engage longer in the course and develop metacognitive strategies.

Scientific evidence of the effectiveness of serious games

However, the evidence concerning the contributions of serious games is sometimes significantly moderate (Gorbanev et al., 2018). In terms of variables giving rise to a negative evaluation, Lavigne (2014) pointed to the low perception of play on the part of users; cases where play is an obstacle to the pedagogical contribution, where the non-neutrality of educational messages and a behaviorist paradigm dominate. Djaouti (2016) identified the irrelevant use of serious games, the lack of integration into the teacher's work and the existence of material, software and logistical constraints. The studies analyzed by Zhonggen (2019) underline the risk of the increase in the workload dedicated to gaming compared to the expected work of acquiring knowledge, and therefore switch cases where no significant difference was observed between the groups. .

Thus, if serious games that have been the subject of scientific studies have been able to demonstrate some of their cognitive, behavioral and motivational contributions, we need to equip ourselves with more tools to evaluate them rigorously in their context, and also to compare playful innovations against each other. Clark, Tanner-Smith, & Killingsworth (2016) have also highlighted the limits of downstream studies, which only focus on proof of concept, and on comparisons between groups or more rarely between devices.

Therefore, we need to produce more exploratory studies on the cognitive consequences of game design, identifying relevant and comparable contextual variables, but also working out how the design processes will relate to the intended learning processes. .

A critical and comparative approach to serious game design methods

The question of the methodology of designing games for educational or awareness-raising purposes is distinct from the methodology of designing games in general. Indeed, while development studios and their publishers have relative freedom regarding the nature and content of the games they market, serious games are subject to greater restrictions: due to the playful approach, the educational content is often predefined. More or less important constraints are considered in order to retain or reject certain possible elements of the game relating to the gameplay, the design of the device, the universe or even the user interface.

However, due to the complexity of the task, there may be a gap between the constraints stated in the specifications and the real expectations of the sponsor. In order to meet this real demand, various methods can then be used to justify the interest of the choice of game characteristics. For example, Tricot (2003) proposed working on three dimensions of the evaluation of an environment to learning: its usability, usefulness and acceptability.

Identifying and choosing a design method helps to justify different choices among different possible situations. It also involves identifying variables such as technical constraints (Djaouti, 2011) and their impact on what is possible for the designer to foresee, by identifying and evaluating the limits of his equipment, his skills, the devices available depending on the places of use and the skills of the target audiences. In fact, it is important to choose suitable evaluation criteria and indicators, upstream, in order to identify the characteristics of the game most suited to the target audience. Thus, the evaluation must be fully involved in the design process.

Challenges of design methods

One of the important challenges of the thesis is therefore to assess the value of game design methods with regard to the contextual elements or identified levers or desired results. However, there are already a certain number of design methods, whether they are guides to good practices (Desjardin & Plante, 2021) or bad practices (Maliarakis et al., 2015), design models (Marne, 2014; Vermeulen et al., 2017; Sanchez and Monod-Ansaldi, 2015) or methods transposed into the design of a serious video game (Muratet et al., 2009).

However, little research has considered systematically comparing design methods for such products (Avila-Pesantez et al, 2017). Putting these methods into perspective with the variables from the game context would make it possible to take into account the roles of the different actors: the sponsor, the target audience, the designer. Thus, we need to critically and comparatively study design methods from a type-based approach. holistic :

“Which comes from holism, which is interested in its object as constituting a whole. »

CNRT, https://www.cnrtl.fr/definition/holistique

As such, the forward-looking design of serious games must take into account all the components of a game, both internal (the gameplay) and external (the device).

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