20 October 2005

Serious Games

For several months now, I have been researching serious games for the book, Serious Games: Games That Educate, Train and Inform. I am excited about serious games not only as a potential profit generator for game companies but also as an alternate entry point for aspiring game developers. Serious games utilize the same technology and skills as those used in entertainment games, thus enabling companies to cater to both sectors. Indeed, companies like BreakAway Games do just that. I also believe that serious games will appeal to women developers and players.

“Serious games” is a catch-all phrase for simulations, training programs, and educational software that use game technology and techniques. While these products may have been stuffy in the past, serious games shift the paradigm by applying what’s fun about games into schooling. Serious games enlighten as well as entertain. Serious games have been used in public policy, emergency management, healthcare training, occupational safety, corporate training, law enforcement, and other diverse fields.

Designed for mainstream consumption, serious games are a good exercise in design. Serious games need to be amenable to differing play styles, player experience levels, and equipment. For some users, serious games will be their first exposure to computer gaming. In addition, serious game design must satisfy the needs of the trainers as well as the students. Observer modes, post-action review, and assessment tracking are all considerations in serious game design. For all of these reasons, I believe work in serious game design would be an impressive showpiece of skills.

Granted, serious games have been marred by the stigma of badly designed edutainment products. Merging entertainment and education can be a challenging task “Stealth education,” a phrase coined by Doug Crockford, exemplifies the ideal in serious game design. With stealth education, players learn without even realizing it. Parents often have a daily struggle with children to study harder or to complete homework. Would this happen if homework were a video game?

Serious games impact society in so many ways. Whether it’s job advancement or medical treatment, a serious game can help. Because of the high personal relevance and connection involved in serious games, I believe that women developers who previously would not have considered gaming will nonetheless be drawn to serious games. Already, parents of chronically ill children have devised games to help children self-manage their medical conditions. It is such a powerful feeling to realize that one’s work will have so many implications and can even save lives.

Furthermore, serious games offer a way to make compelling games based on personal beliefs. Political advocacy groups and non-profits are turning to games to inform the public of their various viewpoints. These games contribute to a cause that is greater than oneself. But even if there is no outward group, one’s own personal convictions can be a source of inspiration. Art games, the most personal of games, demonstrate creative self-expression.

In addition, serious games have the potential to introduce women to game consoles. The success of Dance Dance Revolution has led many to purchase their own dance pads for use at home. responDESIGN, whose fitness program Yourself!Fitness was built with 100% game technology, reports that 90% of its consumers are women. While the company does make a version for the PC, I suspect that most users plug in the PlayStation2 or Xbox and exercise in front of the TV. If there were more applications targeted to women consumers, surely more women would be interested in owning game consoles.

While serious games haven't reached classrooms everywhere, more and more companies, schools, and facilities are considering their implementation. Game developers provide the needed skills to make these entertaining yet educational games. By doing so, they show that playing games can result in positive and beneficial effects.

Need more information? Look here:
  • The Serious Games Summit D.C. will be held October 31 - November 1, 2005 in Washington, D.C. Registration required.
  • Open Call for Speaker Proposals for the Serious Games Summit at GDC06. Deadline: November 7, 2005
  • Find these links and more on the Serious Games