Serious games are just…games

I keep delving into the different issues clinging to the field of serious games.

I keep pondering whether or not serious games are the right approach to game based learning.

First and foremost, though, I keep wondering why serious games are not better games.

Serious games should be no less “gamey” than any good game out there.

Let’s up the ante, raising the bar even further.

Serious games should be able to go toe-to-toe with any good game out there.

I recently read Serious Games “Ought to be Focusing as Much on the Gaming Aspects as on the Message”, in which Nordine Ghachi points very much in the same direction:

[blockquote]I don’t think that serious games are under threat, quite the opposite. Their time will have really come when serious game creators start according at least the same level of importance to the video gaming potential as to the “serious” message that the game is trying to get across. Let’s imagine a serious game that is so well designed, such a fun game and so addictive that it creates the sort of buzz that Uncharted 3 (Playstation) for instance is doing at the moment[/blockquote]

To get there, it’s important that we shift our focus, and design games where learning is much more as described in The Play’s The Thing:

[blockquote]Many popular games teach important skills and convey valuable knowledge, not in a heavy-handed “pay attention, you’re about to learn something” way, but through the intrinsic challenge-based, problem-solving, storytelling, and, oh yes, fun nature of the games themselves[/blockquote]

Uncharted might be an intimidating example, as developer Naughty Dog is consistently hailed for incredible production value, great voice-acting, effective storytelling and so on. It’s terribly linear, yes, but most players still find it terribly enjoyable (this player included).

That’s exactly why it’s a great example, reminding developers to aim high.

“But there’s not enough money in making serious games, severely limiting what you can do”.

At least two answers to that.

First off, you don’t need to mirror the scope and production values of Uncharted; just the  ambition to actually create a blast of a game, which people really, intensely want to play. Such experiences are not determined by your budget, but by your creativity and skills as a game designer. Indies are great examples of this, never reaching the budgets nor mainstream appeal of Uncharted or Modern Warfare, but providing one fantastic, innovative, surprising hit after another.

Secondly, you could consider changing your perception of your end users.

Usually, developers of serious games have a relatively limited target audience – be it education, corporate training, political campaigns or what have you. Sometimes the game is a direct response to a client, sometimes developers create their own serious game IP. Either way, the market is quite small.

If your game is actually good enough, you should be able to break free of this self-imposed limitation. If your game is as good as any game, you should not consider some educational niche your only possible outlet.

Why not make games for everyone to enjoy?

Make good games, that people actually want to play.

If the game also fulfils specific learning purposes, that’s a nice bonus, but that shouldn’t come first, really.

Serious(ly) good games?

Interested as I am in the application of games in education, I often remain relatively disappointed with most games developed specifically for education.

At the same time, I maintain a firm belief in the potential of games to help us facilitate better learning.

Why this dichotomy?

On one hand, I see clear patterns across research and experiences from practice, my own as well as those of others, all indicating that games are great learning tools.

On the other hand, there’s almost always a too wide discrepancy between good games in general on one side and even the best serious/learning games on the other.

No need to be polite here; most serious/educational games are just way too serious…and boring. Not that a good games must always be fun (though it doesn’t hurt), but good games (almost) always boast characteristics, which encourage or even compel the player to actually play the game. Many (if not most) educational games sadly don’t possess this pivotal quality. They simply don’t succeed in establishing the kind of fascination, engagement and hold on its players, as do the most successful commercial entertainment games.

Every gamer, hardcore as well as casual (to maintain these rapidly dying distinctions for just a wee bit longer), knows the feeling of not being able to quit a game. Just one more level/round/checkpoint/kill/boss, right? How frequently do you get this feeling when playing serious games? I know I very rarely do.

Raph KosterAt least in principle serious games should be good games just as much as so many entertainment games are good games. Now why is that not the case? First of all, it is important to maintain, that it has nothing to do with the fact that serious games want you to learn. All games share the premise that you learn in order to play, as argued by many game designers and researchers, most notably perhaps Raph Koster:

One of the subtlest releases of chemicals is at that moment of triumph when we learn something or master a task. This almost always causes us to break out into a smile. After all, it is important to the survival of the species that we learn – therefore our bodies reward us for it with moments of pleasure. […]Fun from games arises out of mastery. It arises out of comprehension. It is the act of solving puzzles that makes games fun. In other words, with games, learning is the drug

Where, then, is it that most learning games fail?

Many suggestions have been put forth, and I’ve stumbled upon many valuable sources of inspiration in this direction, among others the PhD-thesis’ by Simon Egenfeldt-Nielsen, “Beyond Edutainment“, and Jacob Habgood’s “The effective integration of digital games and learning content“. Habgood succintly states that “historically, educational titles have often used gaming elements as an entirely separate reward for completing learning content”. Simon elaborates on this in an article titled “What Makes A Good Learning Game? Going Beyond Edutainment“:

When you play a learning game you need to make sure that learning and play are integrated. This means that to succeed in the game you also need to master the learning goals behind the game

When “learning goals” and “play” are not well integrated, you feel no need to learn, as the games doesn’t provide a relevant context for learning. We don’t need to learn in order to do things, to solve problems, and that is when learning becomes tedious, boring, annoying – when we don’t see the purpose.

At this years Games 4 Change Festival, the legendary Gabe Newell, CEO at equally legendary game developer Valve, talked about the link between games and education:

Several extremely important arguments made by Newell in the above video. Newell’s talk is also covered in this very recommendable article, where he’s quoted for saying:

Games are becoming increasingly useful as educational tools. From our perspective, it’s one of the things we always think about — we always think about games as a learning experience. You can’t design a game without thinking about the progression of experiences and skills that a person is gonna have. The value that we have is that they’re self-directed

Newell also states there should be no gap in our perception of a good game and a good learning game:

There seems to be this distinction between games that are educational, and games that are going to be commercially successful. I’m not really sure I buy into that […] We can do this. We can make educational, commercially successful games, which are gonna help us both on the game side and on the educational side

Towards the end, he, rather provocatively, argues that developers of educational software are simply not ambitious enough:

It seems like a lot of the software that is developed is not very good. I hate the fact that a lot of people use the fact that they’re targeting the educational market as an excuse for not working as hard as people who are trying to build commercial software

I don’t know if this is true, yet I do feel, that most developers of educational applications operate with a level of ambitiousness regarding the games-as-games, so to speak, which is considerably lower than that of developers oriented towards the entertainment market. This may be due to lack of resources combined with less fierce competition in that particular market, but no matter the reason, the lower quality of games remains a barrier in many ways. For one thing, it is not uncommon for practitioners to lament the lack of “good learning games” and even apply this shortcoming as explanation for the limited use of games in education. Another issue caused by this widespread opinion is, that many game developers don’t even want to be associated with “learning games”, and most of the best developers would never move into this domain, causing a downward spiral of too few talented people ever supporting the a shift toward better learning games.

Newell concludes his tirade with a call to arms:

It seems like the people who make good games should be thinking harder about the educational capacity of what they do, and the people who are in the educational space should do everything they can to build better games than we do

Let’s take this last request very seriously. Let’s explore much more extensively the possibilities of breaking down the walls between those who work with just “games” and those who dare to delve into the realm of “serious games”.

It is clear, that Newell and Valve is in a relatively unique and privileged position to put forward these arguments. To be blunt, they’re so commercially successful and financially secured (as seen from a very distanced position), that they can probably do and say just about anything. Some would probably argue, that it is therefore impossible to mount his ideas on a global scale. Few developers have the same freedom and possibilities as Valve, sure, yet the basic logic in Newells statements remain quite interesting:

If you want to make games, regardless of which type of games, make sure to first and foremost build good games
After all, we see a slew of marvelous indiegames, which are developed by few people at modest budgets.

In an ideal world, could you imagine if game developers as part of, say, their CSR programme always thought about the educational/learning dimension just as Valve seems to do? What if every relevant game was accompagnied by authoring tools, alternative scenarios, mods or whatever makes sense regarding that particular game? What if we could in this way bridge the gap between those developing entertainment games and those developing educational games? And what if this could, in turn, make it not only legitimate, but perhaps even attractive, to make these games?

Games as arguments

Games are entertainment, sure.

And entertainment I love, often playing games just for fun.

Nothing’s wrong with this, and games as entertainment are both as important and legitimate as any other form of entertainment, be it movies, cartoons, TV, music or books.

So much for my speech in defense of the fun in games.

Games can certainly be used for many other purposes than pure entertainment. This is hardly a surprise, as no medium is confined in fulfilling a single purpose. Furthermore, even though the different media offer different affordances, we as users of media constantly negotiate the potential scope of application for any one medium.

Games may even make use of a particular interpretation of the good ol’ discipline of rhetoric, namely the procedural rhetoric. The term is coined by “videogame researcher, critic, and designer” Ian Bogost in the book tellingly titled “Persuasive Games” (read the article “The Rhetoric of Video Games” if the book is too much).

Bogost is very interested in the way “games make arguments” and in turn work to “persuade the player”.

Could a game persuade you? To think differently? To vote differently? To change your perspective on the world? To buy another brand of milk?

Bogost argues that games work differently than any other “piece” of communication:

Video games do not simply distract or entertain with empty, meaningless content. Rather, video games can make claims about the world. But when they do so, they do it not with oral speech, nor in writing, nor even with images. Rather, video games make argument with processes. Procedural rhetoric is the practice of effective persuasion and expression using processes.

The McDonald's Video Game

As an example Bogost refer to the recommendable and thoughtprovoking “Mc Donald’s Video Game” by ever-controversial Molleindustria. At first glance many people would probably disdain this as an “interactive commercial” trying to make us buy more lousy burgers.

This is not the case. Instead the game makes you play out a scathing criticism of McDonalds; the way they exhaust agriculture, artificially fatten cattle, and perform extensive corruption to silence opposition. By actually forcing us to take part in the processes (claimed by the game to be) behind the success of McDonalds, it soon becomes clear, that the game is actually criticizing everything about this corporation.

Such is the procedural rhetoric, and very convincing it is. These games are actually trying to challenge our perceptions, change our minds, call to action. We might call label them “serious games” – games with a purpose other than pure entertainment.

As a kind of sub-category to the procedural rhetoric, we find the rhetoric of failure, which is used to show the inevitable failure of, for instance, the war effort of a nation:

In my recent book Persuasive Games, I called the deliberate construction of an unwinnable game the “rhetoric of failure.” Such games present a scenario that can’t be won under the rules provided. These games make a statement about those rules, arguing that they are insufficient for the task to which they are currently being put.

Kabul Kaboom!

Mentioning war above is no coincidence, as several games have commented on or criticized some of the ongoing wars. Gonzalo Frasca, who is known as father to “newsgaming“, has developed a couple of games commenting on the war against terror. His “September 12th” is a rather well-known simulation supporting the idea that bombing for peace is like…well, you know. Not a good idea. It works really well, and if you haven’t allready been there – go try it out. An earlier game from Frasca is also worth a mention, namely that known as Kabul Kaboom!. It is very simple and with…let’s call it “rudimentary aesthetics”. The “looks” serve the purpose of the game quite well, however.

Kabul Kaboom! instructions

You are instructed to “get the nice American food, but avoid their missiles” and told that there is no chance to win. This is explicitly the rhetoric of failure, which is only further reinforced by playing the game. You may manage to eat a bunch of burgers (what’s with all the burgers in these games?), but eventually you eat a missile and die. Bad luck.

You are left dead, but with a very clear idea that it might be a bad idea to drop burgers and missiles in one badly organized mess.


A last example (and the one which got me writing in the first place) is a tiny Danish game critisizing a new agreement made in the Danish Government. The agreement states, that all refugees wanting to be granted a residence permit must first obtain 100 points by working, learning Danish, doing volunteer work etc . This in itself sounds much like a game, but would probably be considered too hard to be playable. The aforementioned game is called “100 points“, and requires you to answer the three final questions before reaching upon the magic 100. The two first questions are easy (if you know Danish, that is – the lower answer is allways right), but in the logic of “the rhetoric of failure”, the third and final question cannot be answered. You are laughed at, but the answer always eludes you.

The game is simple, yet the argument is unmistakingly clear. It is considered impossible to ever obtain a residence permit with this system.

Agree with the argument or not, it is an interesting use of the medium.

Do you remember Bob Dylan’s famous song “Hurricane“? The one which was written as a defense of the black boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, who, in Dylan’s opinion, was “falsely tried”? Well, Dylan’s notion about the system of justice fits shockingly well with the view portrayed in “100Point”, as he states that it “couldn’t help but make me feel ashamed to live in a land where justice is a game” (I just had to post the video, sorry):

I am a big fan of legendary Bob, and it sure is thought-provoking to see a match between the purpose of an old song of his and a brand new game. Are video games the new protest song?

The times they are a-changin’, but some things never seem to change.