Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Daily Archives: 12/05/2020

Serious games – Humanitarian User Research


In December, PaxSims’ own Tom Fisher (Imaginetic), and Matthew Stevens (LLST) were contracted by Save the Children UK to develop a research project on the potential use of serious games in humanitarian aid training.

With the help of their team: Johanna Reynolds (LLST), Bianna Proceviat (Imaginetic), Catherine Benedict (Imaginetic), Sterling Perkins (Imaginetic) and Alejandra Espinosa (Imaginetic), the research delved into existing academic literature on the subject and held several workshops in Amman, Jordan; Nairobi, Kenya; and Montreal, Canada.

The workshops in Amman and Nairobi focused on humanitarian aid workers, from various backgrounds with direct experience in humanitarian aid. Montreal’s workshop served to provide contrast with a population of students, with comparatively little to no direct humanitarian aid experience.

The workshops consisted exclusively of game playing sessions with debrief, both digital and analog formats, without specific course materials or lessons. Simply the lessons learned from the gameplay and short debrief were used to impart knowledge.

Participants from 11 countries participated in the live workshops and from 21 countries in online surveys. 68% of the participants identified as female, while 32% identified as male. Most participants (90%) had at least a Bachelor’s degree, and education played no significant role in the perception of the learning experience or the tools used.

The culmination of the project was a report and webinar delivered on April 24 to Save the Children UK staff.

Some Key Findings

  • 96% of participants demonstrated an ability to learn from games in the humanitarian context
  • Participants were able to retain many lessons learned even up to 45 days post workshop (with no repeat play)
  • Participants were significantly more able to clearly identify lessons learned from analog games than digital games
  • Participants significantly more likely to retain information learned from analog games than digital games
  • Good debrief was identified as an important part of the learning process
  • Neither gender nor culture played little to no role in participants’ ability to learn from games
  • 85% of participants identified games as being more effective than powerpoint presentations or lectures*
  • Language ability is, however, a driver in the ability to identify and retain lessons
  • Technological challenges are an impediment to distribution and implementation of digital games-based learning in the field


In the context of Save the Children UK’s needs, and this project, we came to a number of conclusions regarding the use of serious games in the humanitarian context. Feedback from participants, as well as observed data was absolutely fundamental in pinpointing focus moving forward.

  • Serious games are an educational tool, not the only tool:
    • Games are not necessarily better than other educational tools used to impart knowledge*, despite participants’ evaluations of games as being more effective
  • In order to be most effective learning game must identify and promote specific learning outcomes
  • In most circumstances, specific learning outcomes should be unlocked or revealed as quickly as possible
    • In the case of digital games, unsupported by debrief, this is fundamental, lest the player abandon the game without achieving the desired purpose
  • Proper implementation of the User eXperience (UX) through good User Interface (UI) design is fundamental to the game experience
  • Learning games are more effective when they are smaller in scope, clear in intent, and aim to teach a limited number of learning outcomes
    • The new KISSS principle: Keep it Simple in Scope and Small
  • Humanitarian learning games must be built around sound data and real-life realities, rather than convenient assumptions
    • It is important to explore mistakes
    • It is important to confront difficult issues
  • Reflecting the point above: learning games should provide a safe-to-fail environment, both in the game context (ability to learn and try again) and an organizational one (failure is an opportunity to teach, not scold)
  • In the novel context of serious humanitarian games, a crawl ⇒ walk ⇒ run approach must be used:
    • start small, and work up to larger initiatives
    • shinier is not always better (but can be devastatingly expensive)

*No credible research exists that identifies games-based learning as being a uniquely better conveyor of information than other, well-delivered, learning methods. 

Further detail can be found in the webinar, and report.

Tom Fisher of Imaginetic (tfisher@imaginetic), and Matthew Stevens of Lessons Learned Simulations and Training ( can be contacted for any additional information.

Webinar and Q&A link: webinar video

PowerPoint: SHARE COPY Serious Games Webiner Consolidated

Serious Games – Humanitarian User Research report (Screen PDF): Save the Children UK Serious Games Humanitarian User Research_Interactive Screen Display

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