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Introducing surprising events can stimulate deep learning in a serious game


  • Erik van der Spek obtained his PhD in serious game design at the Department of Information and Computing Sciences of Utrecht University. He likes researching games as much as playing them and has performed research on cybersickness and engineering the affective appraisal of virtual environments. Herre van Oostendorp is an associate professor Human-Media Interaction at the Department of Information and Computing Sciences of Utrecht University. His main research interests are cognitive learning principles in serious games, and modeling of web navigation and knowledge acquisition during web navigation. John-Jules Ch. Meyer is a full professor of AI at the Department of Information and Computing Sciences at the Faculty of Science of Utrecht University. Moreover, he is the CSO of the AlanTuring Institute Almere, which researches AI techniques for the health sciences.

Dr Herre van Oostendorp, Faculty of Science, Department of Information and Computing Sciences, Utrecht University, PO Box 80.089, 3508 TB Utrecht, The Netherlands. Email:



Serious games show great potential, but many fail to live up to that potential. One way to improve serious game design could be to introduce surprising events linked to the instructional material. We modified our serious game for triage training, called Code Red Triage, to include three surprising events pertaining to decision-making moments in the triage procedure. Forty-one participants were divided into two groups: one group played a version of the game with the surprising events, and the other group played a control version of the game. A pre-posttest design showed no significant difference in engagement and surface learning, but did show the participants in the surprising events condition obtained significantly superior knowledge structures, indicating that surprising events in a serious game foster deeper learning.

Practitioner Notes

What is already known about this topic

  • • (Very little.)
  • • That serious games often fail to reach their potential.
  • • That a surprising event can lead to a better comprehension of text.
  • • But that a narrative background in a virtual learning environment led to worse learning.

What this paper adds

  • • A thorough, single-blind, controlled empirical experiment on the effects of serious game design on different factors of learning and engagement.
  • • That introducing small surprising events in a serious game leads to improved deep comprehension of the instructional material.
  • • That this intervention has no ostensible effect on engagement.

Implications for practice and/or policy

  • • Surprising events should be introduced in a serious game to improve learning.
  • • Serious game designers should therefore carefully consider how to embed instruction in the game narrative.
  • • Research in serious game design is worthwhile (and highly needed) because it can lead to better serious games.