Here are some thoughts on what needs to be done to develop an instructional game that meets the objective of actually teaching something to the player.
To ensure that the goals of a serious game are met, the first priority is to design the game to focus on those learning or social objectives from the beginning and not as an afterthought. One can’t bolt game elements onto traditional learning or social education and expect that to be an effective, interesting or even instructional game.
Instead, you need to design the interactions, storyline, feedback and levels in a manner that reflect the goal of the serious game. The first step to achieving the goal is to co-design “serious” elements along with gameplay elements. Designing the elements together means that the fun and non-entertainment goals “grow up” together and are in harmony as opposed to fighting one another for dominance. Too many serious games error on one side or the other and fall short of their goals.
Second, research strongly indicates that what makes a game effective for learning is the level of activity of the players as they play the game. If game players (learners) are engaged, they learn more and retain the knowledge longer. If the game has a large number of passive elements and the player (learner) is forced to observe for much of the game, the learning is limited. So a serious game must be designed with interactivity in mind.
Create opportunities for the players to be interactive with the content of the game and with each other. The higher the level of interactivity, the more engaged the player and the more likely one will achieve the desired non-entertainment outcomes.
Third, create a compelling story within the game that is tied directly to the social cause, desired serious learning outcome or message. For a serious game to be successful in changing attitudes, behavior or helping someone learn, it needs to engage the player within the story of the game.
The gameplay within the story needs to be linked to the serious goals of the game and that link should be made explicit within the game. The player takes action within the story to help others, to further a cause or to learn a proper behavior. The story and the actions need to be linked to the desired outcomes and non-player characters can help to reinforce the message.
And finally, test and retest the game play. Check out the curve of interest to make sure that the game is holding the attention of the players, conduct evaluations and “talk alouds” to determine what players are thinking as they play the game.
Don’t take anything for granted, test assumptions, pre- and post-test attitudes or level of knowledge, observe what players do, modify the game based on input from live players. The best games, serious or otherwise are not created by accident. Study how players react to the game and modify accordingly.