March 22, 2006 4:00 AM PST

What's wrong with serious games?

SAN JOSE, Calif.--So-called serious games have a serious problem.

Serious games usually have a message promoting education, science, health care or even the military. They're meant to educate people by simulating real-world events and are often created with the best of intentions.

Problem is, education, science and health care aren't exactly the stuff of exciting entertainment, let alone video games. While the military provides plenty of fodder for gamers, cosmologists like Carl Sagan or famous physicians like Jonas Salk aren't exactly the stuff of the multiverse.

So what to do about it? A Tuesday morning panel at the Serious Games Summit, an adjunct event to the Game Developers Conference here, took the question on. The panel, titled "What's wrong with serious games?" was led by Ben Sawyer, Serious Games Summit content chair, who was joined by James Gee, a professor of learning sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Henry Kelly, president of the Federation of American Scientists.

Serious games may even have their second annual standalone conference scheduled this fall. But even as the buzz around the genre grows, Sawyer said there's a major problem: A lot of people think the whole concept is a failure and a joke.

Part of that perception, Sawyer said, comes from the fact that the genre has not produced a particularly large library of finished games, or much in the way of revenue or profits. As a result, serious games are still little more than "a rounding error" to a larger game industry that is often said to be bigger than the film industry.

To Kelly, a chief problem is that much of the serious-games genre is aimed, in one way or another, at government-funded institutions such as schools or the military. But the government is often skeptical about projects that have abstract goals such as furthering education or teaching military tactics, he said.

"The (federal Office of Management and Budget) has tough managers," Kelly said, "and they want to see (concrete) results and large-scale statistical success."

Further, he said, the government currently has more than 200 separate programs aimed at spurring innovation in science, technology, education and medicine, and therefore there is significant competition for scarce resources that serious-game developers could benefit from.

"There's no tradition of research and systematic improvement in this industry."
--Henry Kelly, president, Federation of
American Scientists

Another problem, Kelly argued, is that serious-game developers have not arrived at any easily measurable standards for growth and success, and thus outside observers have a hard time judging whether projects work or not.

"There's no tradition of research and systematic improvement in this industry," Kelly said. "Everything is a cottage industry."

To Gee of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the problems facing the genre are complex and serious enough that it must grow beyond its still-nascent state quickly, or it risks collapsing altogether under the weight of unmet promise.

Part of the problem, Gee said, is that the serious-games industry has yet to seriously define itself. Therefore, he said, those in the industry must concentrate on locking down what it is about.

"We have to really confront the central questions and fight over them," Gee said, "so that there might be some central convergence."

But one thing favoring serious games is the very power of games themselves, something which can promote fundamental change.

"The power of games is that they put you inside a world," he said, "and you see that world from an inside-out perspective, and you have to solve (games') problems from that perspective."

And that dynamic is powerful, Gee suggested, because it is something common to all games and something that almost anyone evaluating the success of serious games could understand.

Gee also pointed to a lack of commitment to strong game design principles in the genre, and argued that it is not necessary, as some believe, to put huge resources into flashy graphics in order to make a successful game. Rather, he said, game play mechanics are more important, and a more efficient use of resources--and that is where the industry should concentrate as it seeks the kinds of titles that will generate widespread attention.

Of course, while games like "SWAT 4" or "Diner Dash" can teach players about special police tactics or the demands on waitresses, respectively, Gee said, he feels that the serious- games genre needs a big hit title to break through in the popular consciousness.

And once that happens, the industry will also have to struggle to prove how they promote learning, Gee said, something that the genre has yet to achieve outside its insular community.

Sawyer said he believes there are plenty of existing serious games that already are helping society, but that without good public relations, most people will never know about them.

"We shoot ourselves in the foot because we don't talk about it," Sawyer said.

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I've always thought that developing games that immerse you in a world of the past could be a really good way of teaching history. Reading a textbook about the Byzantine Empire is bound to make far less of an impression than an explorable Constantinople that you have to make your way through.
Posted by wanorris (226 comments )
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I had a project like this once
When I was in college, I had a class on Greek and Roman Mythology, where the professor had a pretty multimedia class for us. We watched movie clips (mainstream movies, like Das Boot, and Rudy, not just Myhtological movies) as well as music (like Pink Floyd). Towards the end of the semester, he gave us an extra credit project that involved Age of Empires II, and asked us to create a game and make a character into something of myth and legend, and to write a story about it and what you did with the game itself.

Unfortunately I didn't do the project, but it was a clever idea definitely, and wouldnt it be interesting, if like you said, there was a simulator that put you in different historical scenarios, like Constantinople, or Rome, and a teacher had you assigned a certain character class and profession, and you had to keep a log or journal of the progress/struggles and actions, then present them to the class and compare experiences. I would maybe actually learn something in a History class if I had that.
Posted by themaninthebox (67 comments )
Link Flag
The problem with that is that it's just not an efficient way of
teaching. Games are good for basic math and reading skills, but
once you get up to the complexities of history, the going gets a
little tough.

Maybe you're talking about a combination of books and games,
though. Then it could maybe act as a good reinforcement for some
Posted by tdowling (21 comments )
Link Flag
Games and The Media
I believe that the idea of talking about their games is a good one, but they really need to attract the attention of the mass media. Sure, the "gamers" will ferret out any game that hits the marketplace, but in a world full of buyers with a "Wal-Mart" mentality, they need to get their message out to the general public. National news services are quick to jump on any negative story, and to much of the world, the only news they've heard about games, is that school-age killers play them just before they go out and murder their classmates. Not a very good national image there! Surely, if they're beginning to rival the music industry, the gaming industry must have the resources to advertize some of their "less-gory" products. If they truly "hold water" the end result will be a much increased support from the underinformed buying public.
Posted by Wiz Wildstar (15 comments )
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Not for the mass consumer market
I've thought about the worthiness of creating games that walk players through intellectual discoveries, perhaps historical events, etc. But if I could, I'd do games that require outside reading, puzzle or math solving, real learning in the process of playing a game that after all is intended to be educational. Ideas and the words that express them would be at the center of many learning games, and the graphics of such a game should have an educational purpose too.

The idea that the discovery of ice ages or genetics should become a top-selling must-have game like Doom III or whatever is ridiculous. There aren't that many members of the consuming public who actually want to learn something. The market for educational games would be educational institutions and homeschoolers, though religious homeschoolers would produce their own hogwash games instead of anything of educational value. I'll chew my mouse cord the day I hear of a game hot among homeschoolers that walks a student through the theological discovery of Calvinism, Arminianism to the finding that they prove each other wrong and therefore both are wrong.
Posted by RavingEniac (57 comments )
Link Flag
Why do we bother to play games?
The digital entertainment market faces the same concerns as and other entertainment venues. Real casinos are adult fun. Console casino games do indeed draw audiences from its real life counter part. Likewise, NFL football gamers are likely to draw upon real experiences as a player or a fan. Serious games suffer from the problems that children's edutainment suffer from--the lack of interest that persons tend to have when the experience focuses on learning rather than entertainment. Perhaps it is a bad marketing plan to tell gamers they are in for an educational experience. Moreover, the enjoyment people have from entertainment that is intertwined with favorable memories does not come from a learning experience. Most gamers would settle for a good story and a way to share game play, even if only to talk about it. Yet, there is still hope that the way to be a good story or game element is to get serious.
Posted by rtaggert (10 comments )
Reply Link Flag
they still don't "get it" is the problem
The main problem I see for the acceptance of educational
software of any kind, is that the creators of these things still
don't "get it" about bridging the gap between Learning and
Game. I personally do get it, but I'm not in a position to make
anything of it yet.

When you get past concerns of budgeting, availability of coders,
etc. - what it comes down to is the person(s) responsible for
designing the game. They need to understand from personal
experience the triangle of 'why games are fun' and 'why learning
is fun' and 'how quality software is designed'. Any less than 3
out of the 3 ingredients won't cut it.. and less than that is
exactly what we've seen produced under the banner of
educational software.
Posted by Hobyx (24 comments )
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See Apply Serious Games Conference Europe, May
What is interesting with Ben's comment is that Serious Games = non-entertainment apps of games means more to the games community than it does to the individual sectors these apps are applicable to. The only way serious games will grow is when the term is 'bent' towards the needs of the recipient sector. That's why we are focusing on serious games = learning games for Apply Serious Games 2006 in London this May 25-26th. more at
One of our speakers: Ron Edwards of Ambient and representing Forterra in Europe has said:'This conference is one of the few opportunities in Europe to learn first hand about the variety of game based approaches from the fast and simple to more complex, yet both feasible and manageable that could be added to their mix to better address communication and educational needs - and Game Developers will better understand why non-entertainment games are in demand, to have conversations with people interested in commissioning games and to see the variety of projects under development to gain perspective and ideas.'
We are doing our bit to try to get the Serious Games terrain a little less opaque and alittle more understood where it counts.
Posted by martineelizabeth (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
Games in education are not new
I attended the serious games summit as I was already over in the US for the ABSEL (Association of Business Simulation and Experiential Learning) Conference having designed management games (business simulations) for 36 years. I found that the emphasis was on (video) games and not serious. No where was there any reference or link to the use of games in education and training. Yet there are organisations going back more than three decades exploring and supporting the use of games for learning - e.g. NASAGA, ISAGA, SAGSET etc. All of these have a vast body of research and knowledge about the subject. I guess I am saying stop gaming and get serious :)
Posted by jjsbhall (1 comment )
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Critical drivers of success
I am a PhD student mulling on doing a research on the educational value of serious games.

I concur with Teriman that gameplay mechanics are more important than visuals.

I also want to add that while games offer the learner opportunities that would not be present in real life, such as clearing mines on seabeds, performing surgery on a heart, make calculated but big risk on the stock exchange, etc.. it is important for game developers to understand, whether presecribed learning goal and objectives are met at the end of the day. It is also important to understand at what level of learning on Bloom's taxonomy or Gagne's taxonomy of learning outcomes are serious games targetting at?
My guess is at the level of higher order skills, i.e. synthesing, judging, evaluating, problem solving. If after playing a game, I am able to attain the learning goal and objectives, I say that the serious game has done its job so far as the learning design is concerned.

Is there a close dialgue between makers of games and educational technologist? There should be because the educational rigour must not be compromised by the initial "novelty" of the game, i.e. the apparent immersiveness of the media and the fidelity of the graphic and sound effects.

Is there has been so much research given to E-learning, more must be given to serious now?

Dialogue, dialogue, dialogue between educationist and game designers.

Eseentially, what needs to be accomplished are tasks in games. What is in the execution of those tasks that helps someone learn something, hone a skill and things like that? What features and functionalities in the gaming environment are affordances (scaffolding) that learners can take up whist executing tasks in the game?

These might be legitimate research questions. Please give me your thoughts?
Posted by aclhl (1 comment )
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