Serious Games: Too Broad a Term to be Meaningful
Having looked at an array of games that fall under the banner of seious games, they can be roughly split into four types, based on the design intent of the game that is their main intent is not that of pure entertainment. Teaching Game, Simulator, Meaningful Game and Purposeful Game. I am ignoring interactive, non game teaching materials!
Teaching Game / Games for Learning
This is a game where you are taught how to do something, by playing a real game. The example that springs to mind from the group I reviewed is Phantomation. This was a game that was designed to teach you how to use the animation software Play Sketch. Rather than just showing you the tools, it has you solving various puzzles that need deeper and deeper understanding of the tool. The big thing with this game was that it could be enjoyed as a game in its own right, even if you didn’t have an interest in learning the tool!
A simulator is where you are interacting with a virtual version of something real. Raph Koster mentioned MS Flight, which is a great example. Whilst this game does have the ability to set tasks and missions, used as a training aide it does not need gameplay. The idea is to learn how to fly a plane. Another interesting entry to the Serious Play Awards wasCornak. This game sets out to teach you the basics of selling products and managing a client portfolio. It simulates a company that sells red and blue cubes and puts you at the heart of managing it. On the one hand, you could say that this is a teaching game, as it has scenarios and is about a fictitious company. Where a teaching game, like Phanotmation was all about teaching you how to do something, a simulator is about giving you a virtual way of practicing something.
Meaningful Game / Games for Good
This is a game that tries to get a across a meaningful message and if possible promote change with that message. An example of this would be Darfur is Dying. This was the result of a competition run by the Reebok Human Rights Foundation and the International Crisis Group. Five students from the University of Southern California created the winning game, that placed you in the shoes of a displaced Darfurian refugee. It aimed to show the hardships faced by the millions of people who had been displaced by the crisis in Sudan. Rather than trying to teach you a tool or a method of doing something, this type of game is trying to inform you about things that may never have crossed your mind in a way that is engaging and meaningful.
The idea of a purposeful game is that playing it has some sort of real world outcome. Three examples of this come to mind. FoldIt, Tilt World and Digitakoot. FoldIt is a popular game that is often cited by gamification folk. It is a puzzle game that sets the player the task of predicting the structure of proteins by folding it. Understanding how proteins fold can help lead to the development cures all sorts of sorts of diseases, including HIV and even Cancer. Humans are really good at solving puzzles, so much so that in just ten days, gamers had solved one enzymatic structure that scientists had been trying to unravel for more than a decade. Tilt World, by Nicole Lazzaro, is a mobile game that puts you in the body of the last tadpole – Flip. You must eat carbon from the air in an attempt to restore sunshine to flips home. Whilst this may seem like a meaningful game, in that it is trying to promote a message about ecology, the unique thing about Tilt World is that playing it leads to trees being planted in Madagascar. My final example is Digitalkoot. Here the player had to type words as they appear, building a bridge for a mole to walk along. Each word is actually scanned in from newspapers, books and journals from Finland’s National Library. The players are effectively checking the OCR that computers have done already.
- Teaching Game: Teaches you something using real gameplay.
- Simulator: A virtual version of something from the real world that allows safe practice and testing.
- Meaningful Game: Uses gameplay to promote a meaningful message to the player.
- Purposeful Game: Uses games to create direct real world outcomes.
So back to my original question. Is Serious Games too broad a term? In my opinion, yes. There are so many types of game that could fall into this, that we should stop just throwing them all under the one title, even for convenience. If you have to, talk about games designed for non entertainment purposes. How can a term that currently holds anything from Americas Army to Darfur is dying be meaningful anymore – it can’t.
One thing that is clear though, if you are going to call it a game – make it a game!
A little addition. here is a chart that shows this in the context of Game Thinking – work in progress, but may add some value.