What a serious game is

Today we’ll talk about a few things regarding a serious game: what it is, how we can use it and what are the main benefits. We will also cover what a serious game isn’t because there have been some confusions.

What it is:

A serious game is a game crafted for a purpose other than fun. It’s usually made for educational purposes, but they can have other roles as well. In short, a serious game is a tool for learning something.

Usual games focus on fun. Whether we’re talking about strategy games, party or social games (or any other type really), the main idea is always the same: it’s something to play with friends (or alone) and have some fun. However, when we talk about serious games, we are shifting the focus to a more serious matter (hence the name). A serious game can be played in order to learn something new, to train a certain skill or set of skills or even to learn about the features of a new product your company is launching or to raise awarness for a cause.

How to use it:

Serious games can be used in education, training sessions, HR, marketing and even sales. Imagine launching a new product, let’s say an app. A serious game can be created so that potential investors or clients will have the opportunity to test the app and its features in an original, engaging way. They get the opportunity to witness first-hand how the app works and they have some fun while doing it. And who doesn’t like to have fun? Especially when sales pitches have become dull affairs (in the sense that no one is original anymore – we stopped being creative at “here’s a prototype”). Or, imagine you’re a doctor who needs practice (all the practice you can get really, you’re in the business of saving lives). You can’t exactly practice on volunteers or actual patients, for obvious reasons. But, you could practice in a simulation program. And we just discovered something new: VR. It really could do a lot of good.

Or what if we care about a cause and want to promote it as much as possible. We all know that social media is the gateway to raising awareness but we are also constantly bombarded with information that so little actually gets through (unless the only thing you do all day is refresh Facebook). But a serious game could be a game changer (you see what I did there?) since most people play games. There are games out there promoting messages like “recycle”, “say no to genocide” and even more funny games like “here’s how to cook this stunning dish”.

Therefore, we can already witness some of the benefits we can get from serious games. It ultimately depends on two factors: a clear message and an engaging game. And before you say it can’t be done, think of Age of Empires. It’s not a serious game, however, we did learn a lot of historical facts and history in general by playing the campaigns.

What are the benefits:

Ok, so we basically know what a serious game is and how we can use it. But why make a game in the first place? Why not just tweet something or invest in an engaging marketing campaign or, in the educational field, just make lectures more appealing? Is it really all that beneficial or is it dust in the wind and yours truly just thinks its cool?

The answer is simple: games are, have been and always will be engaging. And this is exactly what we’re looking for. If you can create a fun, engaging serious game, you’re on to something my friend.

  1. Serious games stimulate the mind.

Playing games translates into facing, accepting and wanting challenges. You’re put in a position where you’re forced to be active and participate (or better yet, take control of the story), not just sit in a chair and listen to someone talk (while you’re probably checking your Facebook or making a grocery list or just plain bored). Challenges stimulate the mind and make those wheels turn.

  1. Practical approach

Aside from stimulation, serious games offer the opportunity to practice. And that’s a very big deal. More often than not, we don’t practice. When we say we learned something, we usually mean we read a book, or a blog post on a certain topic. Or that we went to a training session or a conference and listened to speakers for hours. And if they play a little game with us or make us do something during their presentation, we feel like we’ve practiced too. But that’s not the case at all. The need for practice is real because the theoretical approach can only get you so far. If you need a designer, for instance, do you hire the one with concrete experience or do you hire the one that read an article on how to be a designer?

Following the logic with the graphic designer, students are having more and more difficulties when searching for a job. We all expect years of experience but it’s really an unreasonable request when it comes to students, given the current education system. Imagine a University where 80% of a course is practical and 20% theoretical. Now wouldn’t that be a sight. With serious games, that sight can become far more real.

Also, given the hands-on approach, you’re allowed to fail and start over which, in time, can lead to creative strategies and a boost in efficiency (I’m a big fan of trial and error).

  1. Continuous personal and professional growth

Applying multiple strategies, progressing in a game, this is equivalent to learning. While playing, not only can we enhance our knowledge, but we can also develop (or further develop) our skills. By constantly playing serious games, we are in a constant state of learning and growth as individuals, but also as a team as well. Of course, this depends on the game mechanics.

  1. Instant feedback

One of the more incredible benefits is instant feedback. Not only that, but it’s a feedback that doesn’t bother you as much (or at all) like the traditional one. Every time you complete a challenge / mission / task, you are rewarded. That is positive feedback. Every time you struggle with some aspect of the game, you know it instantly. Which basically shows you where you need to improve (it may very well show you how, depending on the complexity of the game). And if you lose the game, you immediately know why and start thinking of ways to avoid that from happening. In the doctor scenario, it’s ok to lose a patient in a game but it’s terrible to lose a patient in real life. So keep (or start) playing doc. I like to think that I’m in good hands when I visit the hospital.

  1. Interaction and collaboration

In the digital age, nothing is more simple than becoming a stranger to everyone. Sure, your online profile may be popular, but you don’t even know anymore how to continue a conversation after she answered your “how are you” question. Games can help in this regard. Not in the sense of making a game to learn how to engage in small talk, but in the sense that you get to interact with other people (only limited to multi-player games) and collaborate in order to achieve a common goal. This not only enhances your teamwork abilities, communication skills and coordination within the team, but it also provides a nice extra benefit: being part of the group.

What a serious game isn’t:

I thought it might be wise to talk a bit about what a serious game is not. First, it’s not a fun game. Or at least not by nature. As previously stated, a serious game has a serious goal as well as outcome. The game mechanics however may or may not make the game fun to play. Making a game fun as well as serious will help convince people to play your game.

Second, a serious game may or may not be an actual game. It sounds weird, I know, but it can also just be a simulation. Let’s say you’re learning how to park and pilot ships. You’re using a simulation software to practice. It has no levels, points, rewards or anything that might make it a game. But it is game-like, with a serious goal, which qualifies as a serious game.

Third, serious games aren’t automatically engaging or well built. Just because you’re transforming your lecture into a game doesn’t mean people will enjoy it more or even play it. There are some terrible games out there which have the exact opposite effect of what we would normally want: they’re so weak that people make it their personal goal to avoid them at all costs. And if forced to play, they just feel bad the entire time. These feelings will never help them learn and the time spent playing is completely wasted. Not to mention the time you spent creating the game. So when creating a serious game, be mindful of the two main aspects: a clear message and an engaging experience. Otherwise you’ll only get (justified) reactions like “do we really have to play?” or “wouldn’t it be easier to just tell us what you want us to learn?”.

Can you think of other risks or benefits that come with serious games? How about what you can use them for? 🙂

Leave your thoughts in the comments below.