The buzz on serious games is unbelievable. Every dimwit seems to be creating them without any pedagogical insight on its consequences. In my not so humble opinion I'd like to have some strict regulation or self-regulation in the field of serious games. This is not a plee to deter the use of serious games but a critical review.
The whole uproar on action games is cute for layman. Even television programs are rated in an age system to keep children out of possible harm's way. The moment that we're talking about educational games people lose their minds and without much effort you'll be able to sell it to parents thinking that they do good. However educational games may well be more damaging to children than any other form of media if the game mechanisms are not pedagogically tested.
We've all got our own preferred fields of knowledge and entertainment and fields of which we've got a certain aversion. I love arithmetic and don't care much for grammar as an example.
We are motivated to do the things we love for the sheer joy of it. This is called intrinsic motivation.
We are only motivated to do the things we don't care for if the reward we get from it is high enough (Deci & Ryan, 1985).
A good game keeps us engaged to play. There are many factors that may engage us; storyline, characters, different rewards, challenge of skill. The most fun games are theorized to bring us in a state of flow,
a balance of challenge compared to our skill triggering our intrinsic desire to seek out challenge and to master it (Deci & Ryan, 1985). But the balance might be off. Social rewards like status in MMORPG's, tangible rewards like new weapons or items in a game might have a undesirable great role. For some the rewards in a game will become more important than the challenge if the emphasis is placed wrongly. I don't care much for the precise motivations people play MMORPG's, in serious games this motivation does truly matter.
A serious game should have the ability to stimulate players to learn using rewards if those players don't care much for that which should be learned. Rewards are more or less their last resort. You might try linking grammar for example to something that does interest them to get players motivated to learn grammar, though the difficulty is obvious. Not a lot of research has been done on decreasing the reward in the long term but there's a good possibility for a motivation shift towards the positive side (Deci & Ryan, 1985).
The problem lies with those already intrinsically motivated to use grammar. They might enjoy it because it allows them to more fully express themselves. However if you let players that are already intrinsically motivated play the game and put to much emphasis on the rewards they'll get for finishing challenging tasks (controlling their view) instead of placing emphasis on doing the best they can and improving themselves, the consequences might be undesirable. If this is the case intrinsic motivation may well decline because of a misattribution of their joy to rewards, instead of the challenge. This in turn influences their learning behaviour in class and cause long term detrimental effects.
Luckily ill balanced games are no fun to play. Let's just hope Zynga doesn't make a serious game that uses their click-click-click reward concept.
Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behavior. New York: Plenum.