Serious Gaming in Medical Education: A Proposed Structured Framework for Game Development : Simulation in Healthcare

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Serious Gaming in Medical Education

A Proposed Structured Framework for Game Development

Olszewski, Aleksandra E. MD; Wolbrink, Traci A. MD, MPH

Author Information
Simulation in Healthcare: The Journal of the Society for Simulation in Healthcare 12(4):p 240-253, August 2017. | DOI: 10.1097/SIH.0000000000000212
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Summary Statement 

Serious games are increasingly being used for medical education. However, the design and development of serious games for the education of health professionals is highly variable, and very few articles report the development process used for game development. There are many established processes for software development that can improve and streamline development, and incorporating the best practices from educational pedagogy and software development may enhance teamwork and communication, decrease development costs, and improve the quality of serious games. In this article, we review and summarize the literature for serious game development for medical education, and combining the best practices, we propose a structured three-phase iterative development framework for serious game development.

Innovative online learning tools, including serious games, are increasingly being used for medical education. Despite the increasing use of serious games, the design and development of serious games for education of health professionals are highly variable.1–5 Many studies describe clinical and educational frameworks for their serious game development, but the technical aspects of development are inconsistent and rarely reported.5–10 A recent serious gaming review concludes that for serious gaming to continue growth within medicine, development, evaluation, and distribution frameworks need to be constructed.1

Serious games are games developed for a purpose other than entertainment, such as teaching a specific knowledge or skill.5 Wang et al1 describe that to be labelled a serious game, an activity must also include challenging goals, scoring, and an engaging design. There are many types of serious games, and Wang et al1 recently classified serious game types as the following: adaptation, adventure, board game, management simulation, platform, puzzle, quiz, and virtual simulation. Some of these games types are intended to be delivered during face-to-face encounters, and others are delivered virtually. In this study, we report on only virtual serious games. Virtual simulation, a specific and sophisticated technology that incorporates the imitation of the operation of a real-world process, may also be characterized a serious game if the simulator includes gaming elements as stated previously.1,2 Not all virtual simulators include gaming components, and thus, not all virtual simulators are also considered serious games.

Serious games have been shown to increase learner satisfaction and knowledge gains over traditional teaching methodologies.8,9 Serious games provide a scalable, convenient method for learners to practice skills in a safe environment while incorporating interactivity and competition in a format well liked by millennial learners.2,5 The gaming aspect introduces motivational factors and cognitive scaffolds to promote learning and to keep learners motivated and engaged.5–7 Adult learning theory principles are optimized through self-pacing and capacity for repetition, learner-controlled and real-time feedback, and accessibility to education when it is convenient and clinically useful.2–5,7 Automated scoring and action-specific feedback allow knowledge gains while decreasing demand on educators.

Despite the previous evidence and theory supporting serious game, the development of games for medical education is complex, and there are many deterrents to their widespread development.5–10 Game development requires expertise in medicine, education, and technology development to create the complex design, modeling, and scoring required to make an effective game. Clinician teams often partner with software development teams to create serious games, each team bringing a different skill set and working language. Limited medical knowledge by the developer, poor transfer of medical concepts and management strategies, and misaligned expectations for game scope and functionality between clinicians and developers create important challenges.6–10 In addition, game development can be costly and require lengthy development time. Established processes for software development can be formally applied to improve and streamline serious game development.8–15 Incorporating the best practices from educational pedagogy and software development may enhance teamwork and communication, decrease development costs, and improve the quality of serious games.8–15

In this article, we review and summarize the literature for serious game development for medical education, and using the best practices, we propose a structured development framework for serious game development. We will describe the development of a training simulation game, a virtual peritoneal dialysis (PD) simulator, to illustrate use of the proposed framework including design, development, and formative evaluation. The PD simulator is available for free use at, on OPENPediatrics, a global medical education Web site.16


We performed a PubMed search from January 2000 through July 2016 using the following search terms: “serious gam*,” OR “gaming,” OR “virtual simulat*,” OR “video game,” AND “healthcare,” OR “education.” Two independent reviewers reviewed all abstracts to select appropriate articles. In the event of disagreement, both reviewers reviewed the full article, and conflicts were resolved by consensus. In addition, we searched reference lists of relevant articles. We included reviews, meta-analyses, and original articles reporting results of games designed to teach knowledge, behavior, or skills to healthcare providers, excluding augmented reality and surgical simulator tools that involved devices not commercially included in a standard computer or gaming console (ie, laparoscopic surgical trainers). We excluded articles describing serious gaming used for education of patients, K-12 students, or nonmedical fields. Figure 1 depicts our search strategy. We assessed each article for inclusion of details about the development process used in game development. Evaluation strategies were considered formative if the feedback results were used to assess usability and/or the authors used other methods to improve the game itself, not just a study of satisfaction with a finished product. We classified the degree to which the details were reported as either:

This figure outlines the search strategy and findings from the literature review.
  1. None: no development process described; only the name of software program used or development team reported; and/or the developer used already existing software to create new cases.
  2. Brief: development process described broadly; would be unable to replicate the development process with the reported information
  3. Detailed: development process described in detail; would be likely to completely or partially replicate these processes, authors did not need publish the exact instruments or questionnaires.

This project and its component analyses were approved for exemption by the Boston Children's Hospital institutional review board.


A total of 1367 articles were identified, and after excluding those on the basis of our exclusion criteria, we included 65 original articles describing 61 serious games designed for teaching medical knowledge, behaviors, or skills.8,9,17–79Table 1 details the development process used for game development for each of the 61 serious games. Very few games described the development process in detail. Of those that reported any information about the development process, seven described an iterative development process, nine reported soliciting verbal feedback or using focus groups, and ten reported generating feedback obtained by questionnaires.

The Results of Our Serious Game Review, Organized by Author and Publication Year, With Game Development Process Described. The Degree of Detail of the Description of Development and Evaluation was Classified According to Three Categories (None, Brief, Detailed)

The two studies that went into most detail about the development were those by Davids et al8 and Diehl et al.36 Davids et al8 describe a development process to create an acid-base game using wireframes, iterative prototyping, and a questionnaire containing a System Usability Scale (SUS) and qualitative feedback. The SUS is very frequently used across fields to assess a product's usability.15 The SUS includes ten questions, each scored from 1 to 10, with responses summed to report a single number (range, 0–100), with a score of 70 or higher signifying acceptable product usability.15 Diehl et al36 describe a development process to create a diabetes virtual patient game using iterative development with periodic team meetings, structured usability testing followed by game modifications, and formal beta testing. During the structured usability testing, participants were video recorded using Think Aloud testing. Think Aloud Protocol is a validated tool where participants are observed thinking aloud while performing tasks and interacting with the game.14 It provides a structured technique for qualitative data acquisition and analysis, helping reveal the thought processes of the learner and allowing for identification of usability issues.14 Speech, facial expressions, and game actions were recorded using usability assessment software. At least two reviewers analyzed each video recording, using a standardized classification system to code all events observed in the videos. Events were classified as the following: system or user events; as negative, positive, or neutral; and as mild, moderate, or critical. Usability testing included the SUS survey, Likert scale questions, and open-ended questions. Beta testing allowed users to access the game at their own pace on their own computer for 15 days, and Google analytics monitored user activity in the game. After this, the SUS survey, Likert scale questions, and open-ended questions were administered.

Proposed Framework for Game Development

We propose a three-phase development and formative evaluation process on the basis of the results from our review (Fig. 2). We will use the development of a PD simulator to illustrate the process.

The development process, including design, development, and iterative formative evaluation steps.

Preparation and Design

Team Assembly

Identify and fund the appropriate members needed to develop the technical components (game developers) and medical content [subject matter experts (SMEs) and end users]. A development schedule including frequent meetings should be agreed on. We created a team of game developers, medical animators, and SMEs including three pediatric nephrologists (from broad range of practice backgrounds including academic, private practice, and a low-resource environment), a pediatric intensivist, a pediatric resident, and a medical student to develop the PD simulator. Scheduled biweekly meetings promoted accountability and required regular feedback between teams.

Medical Concepts Transfer

Because one of the key challenges described in medical game development is difficulty conveying medical concepts to nonmedical developers, medical concepts transfer helps orient the game developers to the medical information to be shared or processes to be used in the game. The SMEs demonstrated how to perform PD on a mannequin simulating the following: PD machine setup, initial prescription selection, dialysate adjustments, troubleshooting common problems, and clinical assessment of the patient. The game developers asked questions and took notes and photographs for reference.

Content Production

Medical content, including any necessary physiological modeling, is developed and approved by SMEs with expertise in the field, ideally on the basis of an appropriate instructional design for the type of game and applying validated or expert-derived guidelines or recommendations. The text, short problems (tactics), and cases were written incorporating existing evidence, guidelines, and expert-derived algorithms. The content was felt to reflect current standards of care and was reviewed and approved by each of the SMEs. Patient animations were created. Content was delivered to the game developers.

Learner Experience Mapping

The game developer and medical team discuss and collaboratively determine the game functionality, flow, feedback, and scoring on the basis of the game theory and proposed game modeling. Using the developed medical content, storyboards can be created to describe the flow and required functionality of the game. Over several design meetings, the team discussed and collectively decided on the hospital room layout, tabs necessary for interacting with the clinical components (such as patient, monitor, and chart) in a clinically realistic manner, device interface, flow, and functionality.



Wireframes are illustrations of proposed game components and assist in visual communication and design of the structure, functionality, learner interface, and positioning of an application. The game developer created a wireframe to convey the proposed composition and functionality for the simulator, incorporating learner experience from the previous step. After review by the entire team, revisions were made, and a clickable wireframe was drafted, allowing for testing of functionality and learner experience (Fig. 3).

A, Clickable wireframe. B, Iterative prototype.

Software prototyping involves producing a series of partial systems early in the development cycle to facilitate team discussions about design and functionality allowing changes to be made easily to the prototype. A fully interactive and styled prototype of the PD simulator was built using Flash and the Adobe Air software program (Fig. 3). During biweekly team meetings, changes were proposed to existing functionality, and next steps were discussed and agreed on. Once most functionality was established, modifications to optimize the feedback and scoring systems were proposed and implemented. The prototype underwent several rounds of review and feedback, and an iterative prototype for testing was generated. During the SME review, all SMEs independently tested the prototype for both content accuracy and usability. When developing the prototype, a spreadsheet was drafted to communicate the input and expected outputs for every possible user action on the simulator with the developer. One SME (AO) validated the content by formally and systematically testing each possible response to all sections of the tactics and cases to ensure that the appropriate and expected outcomes and feedback were given for each step. Errors were identified and corrected, and each subsequent version was retested in this systematic manner until no errors were identified. The other SMEs informally tested content by entering both correct and incorrect inputs to assess for content accuracy.

Iterative Prototype

Feedback from usability testing can be used to address bugs, usability problems, and content modifications in the iterative prototype. The revised prototype is then ready for the next round of usability testers. Critical problems including bugs, content and spelling errors, and scoring mistakes were sent to the game developer and fixed immediately, and other usability issues were discussed individually by the team at meetings. The team came to consensus about whether those changes were necessary to improve the game and would be desired by most learners and whether they were within the scope and budget of the project. Approved changes were made to the prototype and usability testing continued with the new prototype.

Formative Evaluation

Usability Testing

Formal usability testing is conducted to identify content, design, functionality, and usability problems with the game. Many strategies for testing have been reported including focus groups, Think Aloud Protocol testing, SUS surveys, Likert scale questionnaires, written or oral open-ended feedback, and video recording of users. Only small numbers of tester are needed to identify most usability problems.80Testers should include SMEs and end users. Testing was conducted in four rounds over 4 weeks, with thirteen participants undergoing Think Aloud Protocol testing, the SUS survey, Likert scale survey, and open-ended questionnaire. During Think Aloud Protocol testing, each participant used the simulator, and an observer gave prompts to assess key aspects of the design, content, and functionality. Each session lasted roughly 1 hour, during which the observer recorded and categorized participant comments as content edits, user interface (UI) edits, and bugs. Next, an SUS survey and a quantitative questionnaire (Likert scale–rated statements assessing usefulness, enjoyment, interest clarity, and utility), and open-ended questionnaire (asking for overall improvement suggestions) were verbally administered with responses recorded. After each cycle of testing (3–4 participants per cycle), the prototype was modified on the basis of feedback as stated previously. Edits decreased, and user satisfaction and usability increased during the course of testing. Between cycles, the total bugs identified, content edits, and UI edits decreased (Fig. 4).

Think Aloud Protocol testing results for each round of testing, organized according to total bugs, total content edits, and total UI edits.
Final Product Delivery

After usability testing is complete and all edits have been made, the final product is delivered for beta testing and/or release. Validation, acceptance, and assessment of educational gains are often conducted after release. An agreement detailing how long the game developer will make additional edits to the game and at what cost should be created. After usability testing with resultant modifications made, the PD simulator was released for beta testing and validation.


To our knowledge, this is the first report to review and describe the existing literature on serious medical game development. Our results demonstrate that few authors report the development process used to create their game. Building on the development practices described in the existing literature and considering some of the reported challenges with game development, we proposed a structured, three-phase iterative framework that can be used to guide future serious game development in medical education, especially for those new at game development.

To develop our PD simulator, we sought to develop a structured development framework incorporating the best practices from medical serious game development. We aimed to incorporate the practices that would yield the most efficient processes to optimize communication, development time, and cost. Although many articles describe serious game medical content development in great detail, we were unable to identify any articles detailing strategies for medical content transfer to the game development team. To improve transfer of medical concepts, we added a Medical Content Transfer step to our development process based on the advice from our game developer, because this strategy had been successful in streamlining process and aligning expectations in their work developing applications for advertising.

Our choice of strategies for usability testing may be argued. Many strategies for testing have been described and validated,8–15 but we chose to include Think Aloud Protocol and questionnaires including the SUS because they were low cost, easy to administer, time efficient, and provided a great deal of information in qualitative and quantitative formats. Think Aloud Protocol methodology allowed for identification of usability issues, and the SUS scores monitored how iterations impacted game usability.14,15 The SUS is a widely-used scale that assesses the ease of use of a product.15 The SUS scores can be trended over time to detect changes in product usability.15 We hoped these strategies would be sufficient to identify most usability problems. Since our release of the simulator 8 months ago, we have only uncovered one additional usability problem requiring correction, suggesting that the testing we conducted was sufficient. Alternatively, we could have chosen a focus groups strategy. However, we felt that it would be easier to schedule busy SMEs individually. Finally, we could have chosen to video record the participants, potentially in a usability studio, as was performed by some game developers. We acknowledge that we may have missed some feedback by trying to record it in real time, and having recordings would allow us to go back and gather additional data. However, our testing was relatively time- and cost-efficient, because all data were completely recorded during the session itself, requiring no additional evaluation time, and we did not require access to a costly usability studio to perform testing.

One limitation of this study is that the literature review was limited to medical education game development, and thus, evaluation strategies employed by serious games in other fields were not included, which may have limited our ability to find useful frameworks. In addition, many serious games in medical education have been created and released, likely internally, without publication, further limiting the strategies we could identify.

Another limitation of this study is that usability testing was conducted with participant responses given verbally to the direct observer, who was involved in the game development. Participants may have been less likely to voice negative feedback verbally, potentially elevating the SUS. However, the Think Aloud Protocol outlines a verbal and observed testing process, which encourages reflection and increases the likelihood of open-ended feedback, potentially enriching the data. An additional limitation is the small participant number for testing. However, the sample size used is standard practice for Think Aloud Protocol testing.13–15,80 Higher numbers have been reported to offer diminishing value in informing a development process.80 By conducting several rounds of testing with a small number of participants, we were able to efficiently identify bugs and usability issues without exhausting a large pool of testers or imposing a significant burden of testing time for the SMEs. Through small numbers of diverse testers, not only did we show decreased edits with each round, indicating improvement, but also we also found that proportionally fewer edits were related to technical issues and proportionally more comprised sophisticated content edits, which we believe allowed us to test our simulator more effectively.

In conclusion, very few game developers report details of the design framework used to develop their game. Our three-phase development process incorporates the best practices from medical education and software design, may help improve communication and encourage more efficient and effective product development, and may be generalizable for future serious game development in the education of health professionals. The next steps should include applying the framework to other serious games types with differing education technology principles to assess its generalizability and efficacy. We would also like to compare other usability testing strategies to identify the most useful and efficient method for testing.


The authors thank the Department of Anesthesiology, Perioperative and Pain Medicine, and the Technology and Innovation Development Office at Boston Children's Hospital for their generous financial support for the development of the PD simulator. We thank the PD simulator development team including our SMEs, Daniel Hames, Mignon McColluch, Debbie Stein, and Sharon Su, and our game developers at Genuine for their creativity and guidance during development, especially Rob Brecher and Paul Devlin. We are thankful to Brittanie Marques and Sarah Kim for their beautiful animations and illustrations, Nabila Mirza for her statistical analysis, the numerous reviewers and testers who have helped improve the learner experience, and the Boston Children's Hospital Simulator Program for allowing us to demonstrate PD in action in the simulation suite.


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Game development; formative evaluation; medical education; serious gaming; virtual simulation; peritoneal dialysis

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