Robertson, J., & Howells, C. (2008). Computer game design: Opportunities for successful learning. Computers & Education, 50(2), 559-578. doi:10.1016/j.compedu.2005.11.026
From this article, I gleaned some insight on what adult (university-level) learners are looking for in a game that constitutes part of their professional education: in addition to ease of use and playability, which are essential for almost all gamers, the article suggests that professional learners seek a "meta-educational" explanation of how the game is a worthwhile part of their professional preparation, and remediation that helps them identify exactly what lessons they should draw from the gameplay.
About the game: it presented 7th-semester civil engineering students with a series of diagrams of "static determinate systems" and challenged them to choose the "correct internal forces" within the system. For the uninitated (such a myself), this is a basic part of learning how to engineer safe structures, whether out of structural concrete, wood, or metal. Some animation was apparently used in the scenarios, as the authors justify the use of animation to teach physical and spatial concepts in their review of literature. The game is not currently available for play online, but the gameplay looked to be a series of timed, graphical, multiple-choice scenarios.
On the study surrounding the game: the authors presented students with a pre-test and a pro-test. Not all students in the class played the game, allowing for a control group, and students who did play the game filled out a questionaire afterward. Based on the testing, the authors argue that students who played the game learned at least as well as students who did not, with no disadvantages. Moreover, answers to the questionaire suggested that the game helped students "enjoy" learning the content, and that they found the game engaging and easy-to-play.
Given that the gameplay appeared none-too-engrossing, I found it interesting that students enjoyed the game. One element of the game design that might help explain the game's engagingness for these learners (and this is my speculation, not the authors' argument) was a pre-game "meta-information" screen, which explained the game's learning goals and the knowledge that the learners would use to win the game (878). Students in professional programs tend to be goal-oriented, either to learn skills that they will actually use in their career or to pass a professional certification exam. So, demonstrating that a game will help them meet their goals may be just as important as the usual (and somewhat questionable) "spoonful of sugar" rationale for game-based learning. That is, when we think about engagement or motivation in a game for professional-program students, we need to think long-term, just as the students are thinking. We might say that motivation leads to engagement for these students, and not vice-versa.
By justifying the game to the learners at the outset with the "meta-information" screen, the game designers may have helped to increase the learners' engagement level. Supporting this hypothesis, the authors quoted the following comments from the questionaire:
These comments show that the learners are thinking self-consciously about their own learning as they play the game, continuously questioning the game's educational value rather than passively enjoying the gameplay. Justifying a game as part of learners' long-term education--and then following up with explicit educational content within the gameplay itself--might make a game boring for K-4th graders. But for professional learners, it is probably essential.