The World of Serious Games

In Looking Realistic… I gave one or two examples of the sort of visual effect that is offered by contemporary major release game titles.

As the worlds simulated by the game engines become ever more realistic, visually as well as behaviourally (for example, in a ‘world physics’ sense – where game objects appear to behave as they would in the real, physical world), it is no surprise that training agencies have started to look at ways in which simulated worlds can be used as the basis for training exercises.

Serious games are a particular class of games that are developed for a “serious purpose” (that is, not just to make money by providing entertainment!). Many serious games are based around computer based simulations of real world activity and are increasingly turning to 3d environments as the basis for those simulations.

Why might military, as well as emergency, scenarios be ideal candidates for interactive game-like training scenarios?

One ‘popular’ area for serious 3D games is training simulators for emergency first response personnel. For example, the Virtual Incident Management Training project at the University of Maryland have developed a project to “present typical incident situations and allow the participants to play out their normal roles in what is essentially a highly structured and recorded video game. In this way traffic management personnel and incident responders can experience a wide array of realistic scenarios, analyze the impacts of their decisions, and be trained about appropriate responses and communication as well as the consequences of inappropriate responses and communication breakdowns.” (Video footage is available on the project website.)

The 3D simulated world contrasts with approaches like the ADMS – Advanced Disaster Management Simulator – which offer a “hybrid” simulation environment where characters play out roles ‘in the real world’ against a video projected backdrop.

As well as ‘action’ based serious games, 3D serious games have also been used to provide a setting for engaging people in ‘policy’ matters. SeriousPolicy: Serious Games For Citizen Engagement describes one particular game – Serious Policy – that “sets the player on a mission to win Treasury funding for a new policy”.

In a business setting, too, 3D virtual worlds are being used to provide an environment for management training. For example, IBM’s INNOV8 game is “an interactive, 3-D business simulator designed to teach the fundamentals of business process management and bridge the gap in understanding between business leaders and IT teams in an organization.”

If you want to try out INNOV8, you will need to register on the IBM INNOV8 website and have access to a Windows based PC…

Another serious game developed by IBM is PowerUp, “a free, online, multiplayer game that allows students to experience the excitement and the diversity of modern engineering! Playing the game, students work together in teams to investigate the rich, 3D game environment and learn about the environmental disasters that threaten the game world and its inhabitants.”

Serious Casual Games

As well as realistic, 3D serious games that take place in lifelike simulated worlds, serious games are also developed for casual game players.

One of the most famous serious games, and one that ‘went viral’ is the web-based Darfur is Dying.

Play the game on the Darfur is Dying website, and also read about the background to the game in this BBC news story: Darfur activism meets video gaming.

To what extent might “Darfur is Dying” be called a “serious casual game”? What do the developers of the game hope to achieve through releasing the game? How does the game support this aim?

Through its partnership with the BBC, the Open University has been developing interactive, casual serious games for some time on the Open2.net website. You can find a list of some of the games here: OU Online Games and Interactives.

One natural question regarding serious games might be what distinguishes them from ‘learniong games’. For example, what sort of differences do you think there are if you compare “Darfur is Dying” with a physics based educational game such as Launchball?

For me, one of the defining characteristics of a ‘serious game’ compared to an ‘educational game’ is that the serious game requires the player to make reasoned choices and decisions that correspond to ‘real (non-arbitrary) decisions that need to be made in the real world. Thinking back to the question So What is a Game?, two things stand out for me that make a game ‘serious':

1) Huizinga defined play as “a voluntary activity or occupation, executed within certain fixed limits of time and place, according to rules freely accepted but absolutely binding, having its aim in itself and accompanied by a feeling of tension, joy, and the consciousness that it is “different” from “ordinary” life.” In a serious game, the intention is very much to simulate situations that might occur in the real world, and try out or rehearse different actions in the safety of the game that might inform decision making in a similar situation the real world.

2) Games were seen as providing “a context within which arbitrary obstacles to performing an otherwise easily achievable task create the possibility of play rather than irritation.” In the serious game, the obstacles faced by the player correspond to obstacles that the player may encounter in the real world, and so in a sense are not ‘arbitrary’.

But that is just my opinion…! Some people might class all educational/learning games as serious games, for example.

Find Out More

There are a great many serious games being released almost on a weekly basis, from casual games to fully featured commercial training environments. Subscribing to blogs such as the FUTURE-MAKING SERIOUS GAMES is one excellent way of keeping tabs on current news from the world of serious gaming. The Serious Games Network on Ning and Coventry University’s Serious Games Institue are two other excellent serious game resource sites.

To what extent do you think that serious games really are ‘serious’? For example, if you played any of the games mentioned in this post, what, if anything, do you think you learned from doing so?

[The videos contained in this post can also be seen on the "World of Serious Games" show on the Digital Worlds video channel.]

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4 Responses to “The World of Serious Games”


  1. 1 Rebecca April 22, 2008 at 8:56 pm

    Couldn’t think where to put this bit of information, so I’m adding it as a comment to the most recent posting.
    Looks as if computer game design might be added to the Scottish National Curriculum:
    http://judyrobertson.typepad.com/judy_robertson/
    “Early-> first (up to 8 yrs) : I am developing problem solving strategies, navigation and co-ordination skills, as I play and learn with electronic games, remote control or programmable toys.

    Third: (12 – 15 yrs)
    Using appropriate software, I can design and implement a game or other application which is interesting and entertaining.

    Fourth (Up to 15 yrs):
    By learning the basic principles of a programming language, I can design a solution to a scenario, implement and evaluate its success.”

  2. 2 Tony Hirst April 22, 2008 at 11:11 pm

    That’s really interesting re: Scottish National Curriculum. When we were looking at promoting the use of the OU short course T184 Robotics and the Meaning of Life under the Young Applicants in Schools Scheme, Scotland were way ahead in terms of offering Artificial Intellidence (AI) in some of their modules – and with games it looks like they may be ahead of the curve here, too?

    I think the prominent Scots edublogger Ewan Mcintosh is into games for education, so it’ll be interesting to see how this plays out. I’ll try to keep tabs on its progress, and if more details come out, or a draft curriculum appears, I’ll post it on (similarly, if anyone finds anything before I do, please post a comment in…)

    Sort of related to that, I was chatting to someone today who’s son gets to use Game Maker in a ‘free’ activities period in school. I wonder whether they are any ways I can represent some of the Digital Worlds material to make it more relevant to a schools context?

    (I’ve heard rumours of a Mac version of Game Maker too – more details as soon as I have them…)

    One approach is to have all the hands on Game Maker stuff collected in one place – such as http://www.pageflakes.com/ouseful/22238750

    I’m also pulling all the video collections together as separate shows on the Digital Worlds video channel: http://digitalworlds.wordpress.com/video-channel/

    Any other thoughts about appropriate repackaging of content for different audiences/use cases would be much appreciated :-)


  1. 1 All the World a Game? « Digital Worlds - Interactive Media and Game Design Trackback on April 24, 2008 at 12:26 pm
  2. 2 The Future of Gaming: A Video Game Addict Speaks « Digital Worlds - Interactive Media and Game Design Trackback on October 17, 2008 at 4:22 pm

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