Serious Games: Why Should We Care?

Foldit - simple game, serious consequences
Foldit – simple game, serious consequences Foldit: Solve Puzzles, Save Lives!

If you’re reading this and have little background with serious games, you’re probably wondering: what the hell is a “serious game?”

In its simplest form, a serious game is a game meant to do more than simply entertain.

The term sounds broad, right?

Well, it is.

At present, a serious game can be anything from something like the military training and simulation platform America’s Army to the puzzle game Fold-It, where gamers actively contribute to research on protein-folding and disease treatment. Other examples include SPARX, an electronic therapy game meant to help those suffering from mild to moderate depression, This War of Mine, a game focusing on the civilian experience in war, or even Zombies,Run!, the popular exergame.

Given the broadness of the definition, what makes a game “serious”, and what makes a serious game a “game”, as opposed to just an educational experience, like one of those training simulations no-one enjoys?

To put it simply, while games are meant to be fun, serious games are meant to teach – implicitly or explicitly – while still being fun, using the unique qualities of games (interactivity, mechanics, and more) to immerse a player in a situation.
Unfortunately, quite a few “serious games” in education or healthcare fall short of what a game should be, with only lip service given to player enjoyment (with the enjoyment level of the game being rated against a training manual, visit to a therapist, or such, instead of in its own right), an overemphasis on the topic one is trying to teach (often the repetition of copious, unskippable wallsof text), and little thought as to how to take advantage of the unique properties of games to present information in an engaging way.

In their quest to be “serious”, many forget that serious games are also games, a point which has led many to dismiss them, and which has proved self-sabotaging. We will discuss this as we cover specific games in the series, but now we come to an interesting question – why should we care about serious games?

Because of the rich, untapped potential for unique stories and experiences they offer.

Because, if well done, they can move us, expose us to the realities of the world, make us think in a way no other medium can.

Because, to be perfectly blunt, play is – and always has been – serious business.

Play, in fact, is how we first learn about the world, its rules, and how to interact with other people. It is the one mechanism we cannot block off, unlike lectures, books, or other media that make you a spectator.

As PaweĊ‚ Miechowski, head of 11bit Studios, puts it: “Games can take you through the experience through your hands, by your eyes. You are not a spectator. You are part of the experience.”

This War of Mine
This War of Mine What is war like for those who aren’t soldiers, but are caught on the ground, trying to survive?

The experience is exactly what This War of Mine, the game created by 11bit Studios, was focused on. It let people play and draw their own conclusions from that play, discovering harsh truths and realities through experience instead of through lecture. Perhaps it was because of that that it has achieved popular renown exceeding any other Serious Game to date, even capturing the Audience Award at the 2015 International Games Festival.

Serious games have a remarkable potential to help us understand the world around us through play, perhaps the most natural mechanism for learning we have.

In our upcoming series we’ll examine a number of serious games to see what current efforts have accomplished, and explore possibilities for the future of serious gaming.