Metafocus: Serious Games and the Forgetting Curve

Well-designed serious games can be powerful learning tools because they effectively combat the forgetting curve. The forgetting curve, discovered by nineteenth-century German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus, explains some of the fundamental factors that can make learning and remembering difficult. The forgetting curve demonstrates that forgetting begins right after learning, with retention dropping steeply right away and then nearly leveling off over time at nearly zero retention. The basic forgetting curve looks like this:

The basic forgetting curve.

By adding spaced repetitions of learning (i.e., relearning repeatedly over time, with gaps between the sessions), the forgetting curve can instead look something like this:

The forgetting curve with spaced repetitions of learning.

Unfortunately , little research has been done on the impact of serious games on the forgetting curve. However, when we examine the various principles that underlie the forgetting curve, we can clearly see that serious games are an ideal technology for maximizing learning retention. Let’s take a look at the seven primary forgetting curve principles and how they’re utilized by serious games.

Principle 1: Information is easier to learn if it’s meaningful and relevant to real-world situations.

Serious games create environments and situations that mimic the real world, reminding users that this learning is relevant and meaningful. We’re not just learning facts and figures, we’re experiencing and doing things, which engages our brains in a much deeper way. Also, we connect with characters and stories more than plain facts, so that makes it still more meaningful. Bonus points if the serious game is in VR, where the experience can feel very real, increasing relevance and meaning even further.

Principle 2. More material to learn means an exponential increase in the time required to learn.

Well-designed games can hook players into playing for hours on end due to the fun factor, which means students can learn more material in any given session. Further, designers can encourage learners to want to go back and play repeatedly over a period of weeks or months, which means even students can cover even more material. For example, new levels and player abilities can be unlocked after a set period of time, and players can earn points or other rewards for playing longer sessions or repeat sessions over several weeks or months. Better still, games with a social element, as in multiplayer games or competitions encourage players to play for longer, talk to other people about the game and lessons during and after game play, and return to play together again later on. 

Principle 3: Relearning is easier and faster with each repetition (i.e., the fourth time we learn something is easier than the first).

Relearning material is easier with serious games than many traditional learning methods because we don’t easily forget how to play and win a game we’ve played many times, especially if it engages us at an emotional level. Games allow us to repeatedly “do” instead of just think, which helps entrench the learning at a deep level. For those readers who like to play video games, you know that if you stop playing a game and return to play again years later, you won’t instantly pick up where you left off, but many skills do remain. This is true of serious games as well; it doesn’t take long to get back to the level where you left off before.

Principle 4: Each relearning increases the time it takes to forget.

Principle 5: Spaced repetitions of learning sessions are better than intensive learning over a short period of time (i.e., seven one-hour learning sessions in a week are better than one seven-hour session).

Serious games encourage learners to return to play often, especially if the games are fun, thus creating spaced repetitions over many learning sessions. If there are many levels to complete, learners may have to return repeatedly over the course of days, weeks, or months in order to pass the final level and complete the game. 

Principle 6: Forgetting begins immediately after learning.

Principle 7: The steepest period of forgetting is the period right after learning, and the pace of forgetting slows over time.

Serious games can be designed so that we don’t just learn something once and move on. We learn it several times in a row until we get it perfect. We can’t proceed to the next until we’ve mastered the current level. Then, each successive level builds on the information acquired in earlier levels, reinforcing the learning attained in those prior lessons. This immediate repetition, combined with longer duration learning sessions and spaced repetition game play as described above, can create a forgetting curve that demonstrates accelerated learning and looks more this:

The forgetting curve with serious games.

The takeaway

Serious games work with the principles above to help learners overcome and redraw the forgetting curve. This ultimately helps game players learn faster and retain more. If you aren’t using serious games in your L&D curriculum, whether in a work, school, or other training environment, try putting the forgetting curve principles to work by creating a serious game. This will likely increase learning retention and slow the forgetting curve in your learners and students.

Additional resources

Brown, Peter C., Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark McDaniel. Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. Belknap Press, 2014.

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