How serious games are developed has changed quite a bit since Gunter et al.’s paper “A Case for a Formal Design Paradigm for Serious Games” (link to PDF) from 2006, but that doesn’t invalidate its point of departure in principle:
We are witnessing a mad rush to pour educational content into games or to use games in the classroom in an inappropriate manner and in an ad hoc manner in hopes that players are motivated to learn simply because the content is housed inside a game.
While this paper is neither a rigorously written research study nor exactly informed by deep knowledge about the psychology of learning (all three authors have their backgrounds in the technology of learning), and the concluding “method for creating designed choices” falls flat on its nose as this paper regrettably fails to define “choice” in this context, we can still extract its basic idea, strip off its naïve linearity, and expand on it.
The basic design process for educational games should occur within a three-dimensional space whose three conceptual axes are: Game Mechanics, Dramatic Structure, and the Psychology of Learning. To simply try and “map” these parameters onto each other in a largely linear approach that, among other things, is destined to lose sight of participatory elements and agenticity rather quickly will run into problems and lead to bad games. And the best approach to build such a matrix for a given objective is to create a collaborative team with top-notch professionals from all three areas, i. e., game design, narrative design, and the psychology of learning and motivation.
Paper cited: Gunter, Glenda A., Robert F. Kenny, & Erik Henry Vick. “A Case for a Formal Design Paradigm for Serious Games.” The Journal of the International Digital Media and Arts Association. Vol.3 No.1 (2006). 1-19.