Understanding Serious Gaming:
A Psychological Perspective
Priscilla Haring1, Dimitrina Chakinska1
& Ute Ritterfeld2
1VU University Amsterdam, The Netherlands
2Technical University of Dortmund, Germany
Ute Ritterfeld, Ph.D.
Technical University of Dortmund
This chapter argues the importance of understanding the process of serious gaming, i.e.
playing a game with a purpose other than solely entertainment. Taking a psychological
perspective, it focuses on the effects of the game rather than the game itself. Emphasis is
put on the experience of enjoyment as a core element of a successful entertainment
gaming experience, which, in turn, is a prerequisite for a successful learning experience.
To identify enjoyment factors in gaming a hierarchical model is presented which is based
on empirical evidence. Based upon the Entertainment-Education theory the authors
propose a paradigm shift from motivation for game playing to implicit educational goals
in serious games. A successful blending of entertainment experiences with educationally
enriched content is assumed to be mediated by the experience of presence within media.
Furthermore, storytelling and character development as well as socially shared
experiences are identified as valuable areas for future serious game development.
From a social science or, more specifically, a psychological perspective “serious games”
do not exist. The seriousness of a game must be determined by the experience of the user
instead. The notion that a distinct category of applications would exist outside a user’s
experience is not consistent with a social science philosophy. In fact, a commercial game
that enriches a player’s knowledge of any valuable content can no doubt be serious and
desirable in its effect. We hereby argue that in principle any game can be a serious game.
In contrast, an acclaimed serious game does not necessarily result in educational impact
at all. The genre itself is mainly driven by design purposes or content advocates. But the
development intention does not necessarily match the effect of the game play. The
effects, however, may be more or less educational or entertaining, or possibly even both.
Consequently, social scientists do not investigate serious games but the processes,
mechanisms, and experiences involved in serious gaming.
This chapter starts with a definition of play and games and elaborates on the key
factors that define them, e.g. free, separate, uncertain, unproductive, governed and make-
believe (Caillois, 1957). Next we will touch upon the seeming contradiction of being
playful and serious at the same time, building on the assumption that enjoyment is at the
core of an entertaining gaming experience and needs to be harvested if serious gaming is
to be successful. As enjoyment itself is a complex construct it requires differentiating
between various qualities associated with serious gaming. The “Big Five”, a hierarchical
model of game enjoyment developed on the basis of empirical evidence, is presented. In
the following section we turn to the educational component embedded in games and how
this component is linked to the entertainment experience. A summary of several
theoretical models of Entertainment-Education is given that describe how to connect
enjoyment with education. In these models, the gaming experience becomes the explicit
motivation for playing the game, while the educational goals remain rather implicit.
However, even an enriched blend of meaningful content with enjoyable game play may
fail to elicit the desired learning response in some players. Special emphasis will
therefore be given to the limitations of motivation for learning, learning goals, competing
contexts and selection. We hypothesize that the key to a successful blend of
entertainment with education lays in the experience of non-mediation and intrinsic
motivation, facilitated by the experience of presence. The most commonly found forms of
presence, spatial, social and self presence, are briefly discussed. Finally, two valuable
areas for future game development are put forward: (1) storytelling and character
development, and (2) socially shared experiences. A short elaboration on the relevance of
narrative structures and character development in serious gaming will be given.
When the revenue of digital entertainment games passed the revenue in film production
in the United States of America in 2004 and games became the fastest growing segment
in the entertainment industry (ESA, 2004), advocates, teachers, and politicians alike were
wondering how the interest in games could be channelled into educational domains. The
enthusiasm in game play observed particularly in younger users could, so the assumption
goes, be harvested for more serious purposes than merely entertainment. Academic
education, language skills, health related knowledge or appropriate attitudes and
behaviours may be better and more efficiently taught using game technology. Game-
based learning seemed to be the ultimate pathway not only to counteract any detrimental
effects of “non-serious” games, but also to reach out to populations on whom rather
traditional educational efforts were lost, to facilitate the educational impact in general or
to enhance it in providing, for example, opportunities for deeper learning. The U.S.
military was one of the first agencies recognizing the inherent potential of games and
invested significant funds for new developments, which have been tremendously
successful (e.g., America’s Army). At the same time, education for children within and
outside the curriculum was targeted by less economically powerful agencies such as
schools, museums, or small companies devoted to enriching learning experiences for
children and adolescents. Their attempts resulted in much less sophisticated games than
developed by the US military that often did not fulfil the promise of an engaging learning
experience (Shen, Wong, & Ritterfeld, 2009). So far, the development of games with
serious purposes, such as educational or health enhancement has had some, limited,
The genre of serious games emerged with the intention to harvest these essentials
of game play for educational purposes. Often a game is classified as a serious game
because it has been developed to have certain well-intended effects on the player that go
beyond entertainment (cf., Ritterfeld, Cody, & Vorderer, 2009). Unfortunately, by no
means do the intentions of game developers guarantee that these effects will manifest
themselves. Whether or not these intended effects occur can only be determined by
empirical research. In the past decade a multitude of such effect studies have been
successfully completed (for an overview see: Durkin, 2006; Lee & Peng, 2006;
Lieberman, 2006; Ritterfeld & Weber, 2006). Several of these studies have shown that
intended effects do occur. However, these studies are limited in their generalizability
(Watt, 2009). First, because of obvious differences in game design and content, making
every game different from others. The fact that games share some features (such as
interactivity or multi modality) is not sufficient to conclude universal principles of
gaming effects. Moreover, as every game is interactive, each gaming experience is
unique and research results cannot easily be transferred from one experience to another
(Klimmt, Vorderer, & Ritterfeld, 2007). Individuals may have different experiences and
even the same individual can have very different gaming experiences with the very same
It has therefore been proposed that the term serious games should be replaced by
the concept of serious gaming (Jenkins et al., 2009). This shift in perception recognizes
that serious gaming should not be approached as a finished product but as a complicated
process, of which the outcome is uncertain until the results are actually obtained. The
psychological perspective on “serious gaming” instead of the genre “serious games” also
allows for inclusion of unintended effects of serious gaming. As stated earlier in this
chapter, any game has the potential to result in serious effects. Several games which were
developed without any serious game-intent have prompted the advancement of sensory,
cognitive or social skills and even real world knowledge (Ritterfeld & Weber, 2006).
Whether or not a game is serious cannot be determined beforehand, as is done in the
serious game perspective. It can only be determined based on the process and its results,
as is done within the serious gaming perspective.
UNDERLYING PSYCHOLOGICAL PROCESSES
Motivation to play
In the first half of the last century psychologists discovered 'play' as an area of interest
(e.g., Caillois, 1957; Huizinga, 1938). Play or playful activities were considered a
facilitator of child development and viewed as a valuable cultural transference. The
definition that Caillois (1957) and Huizinga (1938) both use, defines play as a domain
that is within society yet different from it and that has no merit beyond itself. Within this
domain chance is always of influence and a set of rules govern the fantasy of which the
domain is created. The domain in which play takes place is the game arena or simply: the
game. Any game will take place in and outside of our physical reality. The game will
provide limitations by adhering to the physical limitations of the medium (e.g., a board
game; the game ends at the edges of the board) and a structure of rules keep the play
within the domain. It is of utmost importance that a player enters the domain voluntarily.
Any prescription of play will change the quality of the activity and experience. In
addition, play has a repetitive nature: If the play is enjoyable it is repeated over and over
again, resulting in high redundancy of the experience. These two elements combined,
deliberate and repetitive activity, provide a unique combination of features that are also
essential to any educational process.
The deliberate nature is therefore an essential component of game play: A player
chooses to play a game. If the activity is mandatory the playful nature would be
diminished. Whether and to which extent game play (or any other behaviour) is self-
determined is the main focus of the so called Self-Determination Theory (Deci & Ryan,
1985; Deci & Ryan, 2000; Ryan & Deci, 2000). This is a macro-theory of human
motivation which is relevant to the development and functioning of an individual’s
personality within different social contexts. Self-Determination Theory (SDT) is based on
the assumption that people are active organisms, driven by natural tendencies toward
psychological growth and development. People attempt to deal with everyday challenges
without losing a coherent sense of self. This process depends mainly on continuous
support and affirmation from their social environment along with the behavioural context
of their actions. In light of SDT, personal health and well-being depend on the
satisfaction of basic psychological needs, which are innate, universal, and essential to all
people, regardless of gender, group, or culture. If those psychological needs are
repeatedly satisfied, one’s effective functioning and well-being are guaranteed.
Conversely, if their satisfaction is frustrated this will result in dysfunctional behaviour
and psychological ill-being.
Research guided by SDT has focused on examining the social environmental
conditions that facilitate or frustrate the natural processes of healthy psychological
development and self-motivation (Ryan & Deci, 2000). Specific factors that benefit or
hinder self-motivation and self-regulation have been examined, leading to the
establishment of three basic psychological needs – competence, autonomy and
relatedness. These, when satisfied, provide for enhanced self-motivation and
psychological well-being; and when thwarted lead to lower self-motivation and reduced
general mental health. Need satisfaction in terms of SDT applies to player motivation in
gaming contexts (Ryan, Rigby, & Przybylski, 2006). Specifically, games are motivating
to the extent in which players experience competence, autonomy, and relatedness while
playing. The satisfaction of these primary needs leads to the motivation to continue
playing. If however, these needs are not satisfied involvement and persistence will be
lacking, and game play might be ended altogether. The need for competence is fulfilled
by a task that is challenging, but not too challenging. If one feels achievement in
completing such a task, and not frustrated because one is unable to the need for
competence is fulfilled (Graesser, Chipman, Leeming & Biedenbach, 2009). The need for
autonomy is met by one of the ‘ground rules’ of play, namely, that it is purely voluntary.
The player autonomously decides to play. The need for relatedness is met in the social
aspects of play: Most playing is done within social interactions; be it between players,
between a player and an audience, or even between a player and computer generated
characters. The research by Ryan et al. (2006) also validated the idea that having ‘fun’
during game play can contribute to the satisfaction of the above mentioned needs. Again,
we recognize here the importance of enjoyment beyond entertainment itself.
However in non-mediated (“real”) life, people are often quite flexible with these
self-determination processes. They usually do not regulate their actions in a strictly
conscious and intentional way, but in harmony with their inner needs, motives, and life
experiences. This implicit mode of self-regulation and motivation is rather intuitive and
not mediated by explicit intentions (Baumann & Kuhl, 2002). Implicit self-regulation is
more advantageous than explicit self regulation when people face challenging and more
complex situations, where common sense is not a necessary and sufficient condition to
solve a certain problem. Under such circumstances, implicit self-regulation uses the
support of a wide range of inner psychological resources, such as implicit self-esteem
(Koole, 2004), intuitions (Baumann & Kuhl, 2002), and positive affect (Koole &
Jostmann, 2004). Applying these resources allow people to function in a flexible and
efficient way. In situations that are more easily solved intuitively rather than analytically,
such as multi-tasking environments (Jostmann & Koole, in press), emotional conflicts
(Koole, 2009), or existential problems (Koole & van den Berg, 2005) implicit self-
regulation proves to be the superior approach.
Most of the time, certain actions happen in a less self-regulated, non purposeful
manner. When a player goes about playing a serious game, s/he does not necessarily have
to do this with the explicit intention to learn something. In fact, the processing of the
educational content of the game is possibly more successful if it happens implicitly,
whilst simply enjoying the game.
Enjoyment in games
In most studies of digital media the term enjoyment is used to describe the positive
reactions towards media and its content. Vorderer, Klimmt, and Ritterfeld (2004)
conceptualize this phenomenon as the core experience of entertainment and postulate that
game enjoyment is mainly driven by three distinct sets of causes that have the potential to
elicit cognitive, affective or conative responses in the player: (1) sensory delight; (2)
suspense thrill, and relief; and (3) achievement, control, and self-efficacy. But how does
enjoyment through media entertainment products manifest itself on the physiological,
cognitive and affective levels? Most common manifestations of enjoyment, as studied by
psychological and communication research, are laughter as expression of enjoyment in
comedy; experience of suspense through the unfolding of dramatic events; or the
occurrence of a sense of achievement, control, and self-efficacy. The game genre offers
ample opportunities for these kinds of experiences. Often it is the character featured or,
more precisely, the audience’s interactions and personal relationships with the character
that creates enjoyment. The enjoyment, as the firmament of the entertainment experience,
is a product of numerous interactions between various motives to be entertained and
conditions of this experience on both the user’s and the media application’s side
(Vorderer et al., 2004).
However, gaming enjoyment does not exclusively imply positive emotions, but
could also be based on experiences that we might consider unpleasant such as sadness or
fear. The common observation that some gamers are particularly attracted to fearful
content may cause a paradox for entertainment research at first glance. Why would one
deliberately choose to immerse him- or herself in unpleasant emotions? The concept of
meta-emotion suggested by Oliver (1993) provides an explanation for this paradox. Meta-
emotion, or meta-enjoyment, results from evaluating an emotional experience, e.g. 'I
enjoyed being scared by the monsters in the game'. Ritterfeld (2009) argues that emotion
elicitation during game play can be one of the main driving forces behind it. Many
gamers enjoy being in an emotionally intense situation that challenges their ability to
cope with the emotion. Similar to cognitive challenges which require development and/or
application of problem solving strategies (e.g., Gee, 2009; Graesser, 2009; Lieberman,
2006), the elicitation of strong negative emotion within game play calls for successful
coping, or, in other words, emotion regulation (Gross & Thompson, 2007). According to
Ritterfeld (2009) emotion regulation episodes may be considered educational if they
support development and fine tuning of coping strategies in high intensity emotional
states. This argumentation is in line with Jansz (2005) who claims that games are a
private and safe laboratory to practice self-relevant experiences. Representation by one or
even multiple avatars offers, for example, an opportunity to explore possible selves.
Thus, the gaming environment provides a stage for self exploration (Probehandeln) that
may go beyond the physical world. Consequently, experiencing mastery and control
during game play may elicit feelings of potency that contribute to self-enhancement and,
in the long run, to the development of positive self-esteem (Ritterfeld, 2009). No doubt,
an increase in self-esteem is a highly enjoyable experience.
Wang, Shen, and Ritterfeld (2009) identified 27 fun factors based on a
comprehensive literature review and a content analysis of 60 professional game reviews.
They proposed the so called Big Five in game enjoyment (i.e., technological capacity,
game design, aesthetic presentation, entertainment game play experience, and narrativity)
and a three-level threshold perspective (i.e., playability threshold, enjoyability threshold,
and super fun boosting factors). One of their major findings is that when basic gaming
requirements are met, narrative elements can significantly contribute to a pleasant game
play experience (Wang et al., 2009). The Big Five in game enjoyment are shown in a
hierarchical model below. At the left side of the model we can see the ratings on game
enjoyment going up as more of the elements are incorporated in a game.
Although most of the serious games on the market do not yet provide the complex
quality necessary for full enjoyment, some authors believe that they can be developed
(Shen, Wang & Ritterfeld, 2009). A general guideline is that such games should use
entertainment features with educational experience in order to let learning unfold its
potential rather incidentally, not explicitly.
-- insert here: Figure 1. The Big Five in game enjoyment. --
Narrativity and character development
Despite the debate about the role of narrative in digital games (e.g., Harrigan & Wardrip-
Fruin, 2007; Jenkins, 2006; Wardrip-Fruin & Harrigan, 2004) the model of The Big Five
with narrative in the top threshold, is consistent with the philosophies of several expert
game designers (e.g., Fullerton, Swain, & Hoffman, 2004; Fullerton, Swain, & Hoffman
2008). Many scholars have acknowledged the important role of the narrative in serious
games research (Baranowski, Buday, Thomson, & Baranowski, 2008; Lee, Park & Jing,
2006; Peng, in press a; Schneider, Lang, Shin, & Bradley, 2004; Wang et al., 2009; Wang
& Singhal, 2009). At the core of the narrative aspect of digital games are virtual
characters. Many games allow or even require players to control an avatar as their self-
representation in the gaming world.
Role playing is another powerful aspect in gaming because players develop
emotional bonds with their avatars. They have to feel what the avatars feel and think what
the avatars think, in order to accomplish the missions and advance in the game. Thus, it is
likely that players have to at least temporarily adopt the attitude and perceptions that
could be pre-planned and incorporated as options for the virtual characters in the game
designing process. Through strong identification with these characters players may
achieve significant change in their own knowledge, attitude, and behaviour (Peng, in
Enjoyment through Presence
For the blending of entertainment and education to be able to occur, the player should be
'grasped' by the game in such a way that the learning can take place implicitly. This idea
of being grasped by a game is known as the concept of presence. Presence is the illusion
of being there, that is needed to interact and play within media. "Presence can be
understood as a psychological state in which the person's subjective experience is created
by some form of media technology with little awareness of the manner in which
technology shapes this perception" (p.226, Tamborini, 2006). Presence is a
multidimensional concept; the three dimensions that are most often cited in the literature
are spatial presence, social presence and self presence. Spatial presence, or 'being in', has
a very high impact on the effect the game will have on the user and is mainly determined
by two qualities: involvement and immersion. Involvement relies on mental vigilance and
depends on the meaningfulness of an environment, while immersion depends on the
environments ability to isolate people from other surrounding stimuli. Social presence, or
'being with', is the sense of being in a social environment. Self presence, or 'being, is the
presentation of oneself in the virtual world. This sense of presence allows for interaction
with the media, the content and social entities.
According to Social Cognitive Theory, social learning entails that people can learn from
their own experience or the observed behaviour of others. This can be applied to learning
from the interactions in a game; “People can learn many complicated behaviours,
attitudes, expectations, beliefs and perceptual schemata through observation and
participation in video games” (p. 368, Buckley, 2006). The Massively Multi player
Online (MMO) genre has the potential to induce such learning through a strong sense of
social presence as most of the other players are actual humans. There is enormous
potential for serious gaming development in allowing for stronger social experiences in
the MMO genre. Both the virtual world and the avatar (digital representation of self) are
persistent meaning that they exist without stop or pause, even without the individual
player present. This continuity of an avatar creates a persistent identity which allows for
communication and social interaction on a deeper level. This connection to the avatar
allows for a deeper learning process over time. Physicality refers to the similarity of the
virtual world to the physical world. It is largely similar to the physical laws and
manifestations of the reality. The MMO-platform allows players to experience a real
connection with other players, in real-time while in a virtual world. These experiences
allow for meaningful social interactions. A MMO environment would allow a player to
experience certain behaviour or observe certain behaviour of other players from which
he/she could learn.
For children, learning is a playful activity. Initially, children do not experience a
distinction between learning and fun (Ritterfeld, 2008). Growing up, however, the two
entities will slowly drift apart and eventually establish two distinct sets of experiences:
Fun is seen to exclude learning and learning is seen to exclude fun (c.f., Figure 2). This
distinction is mainly supported by the educational system and reinforced when a child
experiences learning as difficult and painful. Designing serious games is motivated by the
intention to reunite these processes: learning with fun or even better, learning because of
fun. It is fascinating to watch gamers overcome frustration if they encounter impasses and
explore alternatives or try again and again to reach their game goal without any external
encouragement. Most interestingly, the experience itself, although potentially frustrating,
is enriched with enjoyment. As shown in the model below, the goal of serious gaming is
to overcome the gap between education and entertainment by providing the learner with a
playful educational experience, called 'engaged learning'. We hereby assume that this
merger of learning and fun is independent from age and can be applied to any educational
-- insert here: Figure 2. Model of engaged learning (Ritterfeld, 2008). –
Paradigms of Entertainment-Education
If the motivation to be educated is lacking, there are three Entertainment-Education
paradigms (i.e. motivation paradigm, reinforcement paradigm and blending paradigm),
that are generally used to enhance motivation by adding an entertainment component
with games (Ritterfeld & Weber, 2006). These three models are shown below, their
development set out over time.
-- insert here: Figure 3 Paradigms of Entertainment-Education (Ritterfeld & Weber,
2006, p. 407) –
In the motivation paradigm, an entertainment component is used to make the
overall learning experience more attractive for unmotivated learners. Here it is assumed
that the educational content in itself is not sufficiently attractive to stimulate the learning
process. Therefore the entertainment component is meant to draw the user's attention,
which is subsequently shifted to the educational content, providing for a more implicit
way to motivate the user to learn. This approach has already proven successful for
linguistic (Ritterfeld, Klimmt, Vorderer, & Steinhilper, 2005), science (e.g., Ritterfeld,
Weber, Fernandes, & Vorderer, 2004; Ritterfeld, Wang, Shen et al., 2009) and health
(e.g., Ritterfeld & Jin, 2006) content.
The reinforcement paradigm, contrary to the motivation paradigm, inverts the
order of the entertainment and education components, and uses the entertainment part as
a motivational incentive (Ritterfeld & Weber, 2006). The entertainment component is
usually offered as reinforcement after the completion of the educational part and may be
incorporated as an expected reward or a surprise. In the example of educational games
incentives can vary from appointed scores, earned virtual money, fun animations, or
accomplishing different levels in a video game (Ritterfeld & Weber, 2006).
The concept of motivation can be subdivided into intrinsic and extrinsic
motivation. Intrinsic motivation entails that motivation comes from inside the person,
whereas extrinsic motivation entails that the person is motivated because of factors
outside of the explicit goal of the behaviour itself. For example, one could donate money
to a beggar because one genuinely wants to help the beggar (intrinsic motivation), or one
could donate money to a beggar in order to make him go away (extrinsic motivation).
The first two paradigms for entertainment-education discussed here, the motivation
paradigm and the reinforcement paradigm, both apply to explicit motivation.
The third paradigm discussed, the blending paradigm, aims to merge
entertainment with education by using the concept of 'presence'; which is the illusion of
being in the game. The blending must occur in such a way that entertainment is no longer
complementary to education, but they are blended into one experience. By doing so,
learning becomes incidental and implicit, rather than an explicit goal. The explicit goal
has become the overall experience of game play, the blend of entertainment and
education, where the education part has now become only one of the components to reach
the goal. Hence, the explicit motivation to play the educational game has been shifted
from the direct educational purpose to the new goal that encompasses both educational
and entertainment components. This way, the purely educational component has become
an implicit, rather than explicit motivation.
A longitudinal study by Schneider and Stefanek (2004) describes three necessary
components for above average learning performance: practice, interest, and intrinsic
motivation. By blending the education and entertainment components together to a new
enjoyable experience, two of Schneider and Stefanek's (2004) components for good
learning performance, intrinsic motivation and interest, can be facilitated. The third,
practice, can be achieved by playing the game. The third paradigm for entertainment-
education, the blending paradigm, applies to implicit motivation.
Ratan and Ritterfeld (2009) identified four underlying psychological mechanisms
embedded in serious games: (1) skill practice, (2) knowledge gain through exploration,
(3) cognitive problem solving, and (4) social problem solving. According to their
findings, skill practice is the primary underlying psychological mechanism for the
majority of all serious games. Practice is undoubtedly important for learning and it
involves the repetition of the learned content or skill. Nevertheless, this finding implies
that most serious games do not target a more sophisticated, deeper learning. In this
respect, the potential of digital games is not yet fully explored. It is therefore not
surprising that most of these skill-focused games, that have been demonstrated to
effectively facilitate learning, are not deliberately selected nor deliberately played over a
longer period of time by their users. Instead they were prescribed by a research team. In
some studies, incentives were given to impose the necessary game play, which triggers
extrinsic motivation (e.g., Moore, Rosenberg, & Coleman, 2005). In those cases, the
expectation to harvest the potential for intrinsically motivating game play is clearly not
fulfilled. Models, used in the discussion of Entertainment-Education, assume the
successful blending of two very different game play experiences; the entertaining
experience and the educational experience (Ritterfeld & Weber, 2006; Wang & Singhal,
2009). Entertainment makes a manifold contribution on game selection and persistence of
game play. The deliberate selection of a game (in contrast to prescribed use) as well as
enduring and repeated gaming will provide the motivational basis for sustained skill
practice, educational content processing or problem solving and will, consequently, result
in deeper learning. One of the main challenges posed for Entertainment-Education in
game play is how to sustain enjoyment despite an enrichment of content.
Limitations of Entertainment-Education
In order for serious gaming to be successful both an enjoyable experience and meaningful
processing of content must occur. The enjoyable experience of gaming is the explicit
motivation, while the learning episode remains implicit. However, this model of
Entertainment-Education is not applicable to all learners or situations. We will now look
at some of the limitations of Entertainment-Education through serious gaming. Special
attention will be paid to the motivation to learn, the level of both entertainment and
education, and context.
Entertainment-Education may not work for learners who have no interest in, or
even aversion to, the offered educational content. If a learner is not motivated to learn
about a certain subject or to master a certain skill, providing the undesired educational
content in a gaming environment will decrease the enjoyment of the gaming experience.
On the other hand, if a learner is already explicitly motivated to learn about a certain
subject or to master a certain skill, providing the desired educational content in a gaming
environment could demotivate the player. In this case the entertainment component may
be perceived as an unnecessary detour or even a distraction. Consequently, the
application of Entertainment-Education is especially suitable for the segment of learners,
who have some or a latent motivation to grasp the content, but are not yet determined to
do so. This idea is further elaborated on by examining some of the assumptions that
models in Entertainment-Education often carry. These assumptions and the Moderate
Entertainment Hypothesis are visualized in a graph below (Figure 4).
-- insert here:
Figure 4. Model of assumptions on the Entertainment-Education link (Ritterfeld &
Weber, 2006, p. 406) --
The line representing the Facilitation Hypothesis, assumes the educational value
will rise along with heightened entertainment value. This means that the more entertained
learners are, the more opportunities for processing of meaningful content. The line
representing the Distraction Hypothesis assumes the opposite; the educational value will
decrease with heightened entertainment value. Following this logic it would mean that
the more entertained learners are, the more they are distracted from any meaningful
content. Ritterfeld and Weber (2006) propose that the more accurate assumption is
indicated by the line representing the Moderate Entertainment Hypothesis; where there is
an optimum level of entertainment for an optimal level of education. If the level of
entertainment is heightened the education value will decrease but if the entertainment
level is lowered the education value will also decrease. The challenge is to find this
optimum entertainment level.
Another element that provides limitations on Entertainment-Education is the
context outside of the game play. This context may significantly interfere with game play
experiences. Individuals are unlikely to select serious gaming if it competes with other
leisure activities. Also, actual experiences compete with virtual ones. Furthermore, some
experiences will be avoided completely, even if they are virtual. Being bored, in pain or
generally unhappy are experiences that will be avoided in a real and a virtual
environment. These considerations may apply less to a school context, where games may
be a welcome alternative to more traditional pedagogy.
Enjoyment of digital games is critical to serious gaming, perhaps even more than to game
play for pure entertainment (Ritterfeld & Weber, 2006). Yet, the complexity of this
concept creates a real challenge for evaluation (Wang, 2010). There has not yet been a
standard validated set of measures of game enjoyment. Scale items that are commonly
used tend to be general statements with variations of synonyms (fun, enjoyable,
interesting, etc.). Other factors for measuring enjoyment in games are often derived from
specific types of games and game players, or adapted from intrinsic motivational
approaches (e.g., Malone & Lepper, 1987; Ryan, Rigby, & Przybylski, 2006; Yee, 2007).
The development of a multi-dimensional measurement of game enjoyment may be a
useful direction for future research.
Parasocial interactions have been studied for decades since the term was coined
by Horton and Wohl (1956) to describe an imaginary relationship between television or
radio audience members and a media persona (e.g., Giles, 2002; Rubin, Perse, & Powell,
1985; Schiappa, Allen, & Gregg, 2007). Given the popularity and prevalence of digital
game play, perhaps it is time to extend the research of parasocial interaction to this new
entertainment media format. Young scholars have just started to investigate the parasocial
communication between players and their avatars (Hartmann, 2008; Klimmt, Hartmann,
& Schramm, 2006), but their thinking remains largely at the conceptual level. There is
obviously much room for further theoretical, methodological, and empirical advancement
into to the underlying mechanisms for emotional involvement, feeling of presence,
agency, and consequences carried from the virtual worlds to real life (e.g., Peng, in press
a; Ritterfeld, 2009; Ritterfeld & Weber, 2006).
The development of serious gaming is rapidly progressing to meet the standard of
the development of commercial games, although it is not always of the same quality.
However, in order for presence and explicit enjoyment to occur simultaneously with
implicit learning, serious gaming has progressed sufficiently. Different aspects could be
developed even further, but serious games are already of such a quality to allow these
important psychological processes to occur. Significant progress might still be achieved
in the development of narrativity and character development, as well as the social
experience of serious gaming. The attentive reader will notice that these are the top-two
levels in the model of the Big Five in game enjoyment, as elaborated above (Figure 1).
Although the concept of serious games or gaming has been around for a while, there is
still some dispute on what the term does and does not mean. From a social science
perspective it entails the process of playing a (digital) game, after which the player is left
with more than just an enjoyable experience. Games have the ability to carry educational
content in an implicit manner, which means that serious-game designers can teach
without overtly teaching. The enjoyable media experience is also the explicit motivation
for selection and repetition of game play, which reinforces the learning process. The Big
Five are the key-features that determine whether or not a game is enjoyable. These are
technological capacity, game design, aesthetic presentation, entertainment game play
experience, and narrativity. In this order they represent a hierarchy of threshold
processes. The more sophisticated each of these features is incorporated in the game, the
more enjoyable the game play becomes. However, there is a limit to the amount of
educational content that enjoyment can carry. If there is too much entertainment in a
game the educational content may get lost; if there is too much educational content in a
game there may be no more room left for entertainment. The goal is to reach for the
optimum level of education and entertainment so that they complement each other. Even
if this optimum is reached there are still limitations on the type of learner this is suited
for. The completely unmotivated learners cannot be compelled by adding entertainment
while the already motivated learners will be demotivated by the distraction that the
entertainment provides. In order for any game to accomplish enjoyment it is vital that the
player realizes ‘presence’ within the gaming environment. When presence is established
the blending paradigm of Entertainment-Education can come into play. The authors urge
serious game development to look towards social experiences, narrativity and character
development as gaming-elements that could be further developed. Meanwhile, social
sciences will strive for a standard, validated, multidimensional measurement of
enjoyment in games.
Evaluation of serious gaming should be based solely on effects of game play, not
on the intention of the designers
A robust measurement set of entertainment in gaming is very much needed, the
development of such a tool could be based on the Big Five
When evaluation (serious) gaming the researcher must be mindful that the
interactive nature of game play creates a unique experience and generalizability is
Blending entertainment with education must remain focused on the entertainment
The experience of presence (self, spatial and social) is an important facilitator for the
blending of entertainment and education
Keep in mind that when competence, autonomy and relatedness are addressed by the
game play, the player will be motivated to continue playing
Aspects that can be better utilized to enhance game play are
o Socially shared experiences
o Character development
Utilizing serious gaming as didactic tool has a (motivational) target group and
does not provide an overall solution
Serious gaming is a very effective mediated learning tool, regardless of content
Educators must be weary not to push serious gaming too much, when the game
play turns into a task it loses the entertainment element
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Key terms & definitions
Entertainment-Education = simultaneous enjoyment and processing of meaningful
Explicit motivation = an action motivated by a process that you are aware of
Extrinsic motivation = an action motivated by something other than the action itself
Meta-enjoyment = to enjoy having a particular emotional state
Implicit motivation = an action motivated by a process that you are unaware of
Intrinsic motivation = an action motivated by the action itself
Parasocial interactions = interactions with a mediated/fictional character creating an
Presence = the feeling of being immersed in a game/media environment
SDT = Self Determination Theory
Serious gaming = the process of playing a game which has merit beyond the enjoyment
of the game itself.