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.

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.