What is a “serious” game? Up until about a year ago, I didn’t really know what it meant, and kind of thought it sounded like an oxymoron. Since then, I have been researching and making serious games–you can find my first one here. At some point in your life, you’ve probably been in the midst of a task and realized you or someone else had turned it into a game. Maybe your mom tricked you into thinking raking the leaves was a game by telling you and your brother that whoever got the most leaves into a pile the fastest would win. Maybe your boss gave out points for a job well done in an employee of the month competition. As a Penn Freshman, you may remember competing in a scavenger hunt during the Library Social here at Van Pelt Library. Have you ever come across a game and got the feeling there was more going on than just fun? If you answered no, odds are that will change soon. Serious games include any game with a goal beyond pure entertainment, and they are making appearances in all kinds of places–especially digital games.
Sure, serious games include the chores game your mom made up and playing The Oregon Trail at your elementary school computer lab when you were 8. But the goal doesn’t have to be chores or education. Advergames are basically game version of advertisements, like the Chester the Cheetah platformer–if it got somebody to associate Cheetos with fun, then mission accomplished. (Of course this may have backfired because that game was the worst). Newsgames can offer interactive documentaries as a way to absorb current events.
If you’re not sure if a game is really a game, it’s probably a serious game. Some empathy building and political games are meant to convey the perspective of another in a more powerful way through asking the user to try out making the decisions in the life of someone else, like in Darfur is Dying. Others seek to use a larger community than what would be found otherwise for some really impressive advancements –just look at Foldit, which asks users to figure out ways to fold proteins properly. When players get all the way up to folding proteins that modern biological science had yet to figure out how to fold, some players have actually made significant scientific advancements by solving the puzzle of folding the proteins.
Sometimes the game’s purpose is not obvious. Persuasive games like the recruitment games for the U.S. army certainly qualify as serious games, but this is a space that lends itself to ambiguity. Is Call of Duty a persuasive game? It could also be seen as an army-recruitment-type game, complete with revisions of history in which America is constantly the scrappy underdog.
And of course, the educational game has come a long way since The Oregon Trail. Sure, a lot of us have fond memories of fording rivers and hunting way more buffalo than we could carry (seriously, why couldn’t the rest of my party come help carry the food back to the wagon?). But did anyone actually learn anything? I’m pretty sure I learned that Independence Rock was a thing and that dysentery was pretty scary, but like many of these early educational video games, they were either more fun or more educational. Modern educational games are trying to strike a balance, harnessing the motivational power of playing a game for fun with the learning potential involved in figuring out how to play something. Since you have to learn to play a game better and better in order to advance (if it’s designed well anyway), if the gameplay action is something educational, you’re bound to learn something. Good game design relies on making the learning process of improving gameplay skills as easy on the player as possible, which can make for some pretty great educational opportunities.
So if you are interested in how learning happens, you may be interested in checking out serious games. If you’re interested in making a game here at Penn, make sure to check out the Computer Graphics and Game Technology graduate program, Penn Apps or Professor Kevin Werbach of Wharton’s work on gamification, including the gamification courses LGST 240 and LGST 640 (the former for undergrads, the latter for MBA and grad students) and this very popular Coursera class. Outside of Penn, the Games for Change community would likely be happy to have you, and make sure to check out the smaller indie games cropping up these days–there are some pretty great innovations coming from individual and small groups of game makers, and they often include some great serious game options. If you’re interested in turning something into a game, or making your first game from scratch, feel free to stop by Weigle Information Commons to chat with me.
Personally, I like making educational games (like this one for learning physics–note that you’ll have to install Unity Web Player, a free extension), but whatever game you want to make, we’ll figure out a way to get you started. No programming or art skills required.