What is a serious game?

Examples and use-cases of serious games

What is a serious game? At its simplest definition, a serious game revolves more around the word “serious” than “game” – it is a game, but a serious game is intended to have an explicit purpose versus pure entertainment.

You can expand and breathe more life into the concept of serious games when you look at “serious” and “game” together. Basically, with a serious game, you’re using game-based technologies and principles but layered within it are concepts that the user can walk away with including additional knowledge or skills.

What are some technological components of serious games?

Serious games, like standard video games, typically use game-based platforms or game engines such as Unity or Unreal but it is not essential. So from a platform standpoint, serious games aim to provide a similar level of immersion and experience as entertainment-based games. Using similar technologies in the creation of serious games, when possible, is ideal and aids in working towards that goal.

Technologically speaking, serious games can vary greatly. They could be 2D or 3D which may use the same engine but would be very different in asset creation as well as in some levels of interaction. This is primarily due to the differing needs and capabilities between the two presentation types. Another would be whether the serious game was single or multiplayer. The single-player path is typically more contained within the perspective of the individual where a multiplayer path tends to add the needs of syncing environments and avenues for players to be able to communicate with each other.

A popular “new kid” on the block that is getting more attention and consideration would be AI. This can be used in really any presentation type as well as single or multiplayer. Dimensions of AI have been around for many years but traditionally complicated and taxing to implement. Over the past few years, there has been a larger focus on lowering the barriers of entry in addition to the increase in usage of the cloud and evolution of data being king.

How do serious games differ from educational games?

For educational games (edutainment), that’s a market that consists of a type of titles or products that are specifically geared towards education. Serious games could fall into the edutainment category but I wouldn’t say edutainment defines serious games. They can certainly intermingle but they are definitely not exclusive.

In my background, I’ve done a lot of edutainment work but they weren’t necessarily serious games. They were more interactive but, for example, several of them weren’t using game-based techniques. They had more informative elements and the IP was more entertainment-focused, like the work I’ve done with Universal Studios. You can leverage things like the Little Rascals, the Land Before Time or other types of IP and walk a participant through their stories. But if you utilize those interactive experiences to educate the user on principles, like moral lessons and ethics, that’s when the lines start to blur and you cross over into a serious game.

What’s an example of a serious game?

One example is a project for a government organization where I worked with a team that focused on creating an immersive experience to aid the organization in training their members to be more aware and effective in dealing with scenes where potential crimes were committed. It was very similar to the existing game Heavy Rain by Quantic Dream in which we borrowed several mechanics.

If you think about games in general, so many of the mechanics are reused and repurposed. Every now and then a game will introduce a brand new concept (which can be a good or a bad concept). But a lot of games build on each other and leverage existing mechanics and rules. The story changes. The environment changes. But conceptually, aspects of the games are similar and overlapping. An added benefit is if these mechanics are fairly well known, the level of entry for a player is most likely less and requires less education.

This game mimicked some functional aspects of Heavy Rain but infused scenarios and training criteria along with existing training materials that the government organization already used in their personal training classes. We formulated a story, layered in the mechanics from the very beginning of the project and added in the learning objectives and educational materials to ensure the player digests and retains the information from their experience. For example – when you’re entering or investigating a crime scene, there are very specific processes and techniques that should be followed to ensure the area does not get contaminated. If those processes or techniques are not followed there could be serious consequences. That was the kind of content we were helping reinforce.

Are there specific use-cases for serious games?

Another place serious games really help with are use-cases related to cybersecurity. One game I’ve worked on was focused on teaching/training Network Administrators through the various aspects of terminals and the handling of setting up and protecting networks. You can build a serious game for cybersecurity that’s closed and protective that provides examples of terminals, then provide the user an immersive simulated experience that feels real but is safe and protected from danger and doesn’t require real hardware. Moreover, an environment in a serious game can be reinforced – here’s an example of a good choice, a bad choice, etc. and here are the results and consequences of what happened.

Another area that is a great application of serious games is equipment training and simulation. You can train on equipment with serious games. Folks may not have the actual equipment on hand but you can create a serious game of the equipment and emulate what it looks like, how it reacts when you interact with it, the type of response the equipment provides – it’s all virtual. It reinforces good choices, bad choices, good data, bad data – it can all be specific to a piece of equipment. One of the biggest challenges a lot of bigger organizations are facing are budget cuts. Some equipment is stretched very thin so an organization will put the equipment where it is most needed and the lack of availability makes it challenging to train people on that equipment. It could be a small handheld piece of equipment, a massive generator – the options are limitless. With serious games to help train people, you could also layer in collaborative/team-based needs. This is particularly applicable with tasks that require multiple team members having to communicate, coordinate and work together to successfully complete tasks.

Overall, serious games are a very powerful medium that can be leveraged in many ways to help organizations and people. The key is to understand what your goals are, what your requirements are and then make sure you design or pick interactions, rules, and technology that makes the most sense for what you are looking to accomplish. Serious games typically don’t work well when someone thinks hey, this is a cool game, let’s wedge this very specific non-contextual content in there. You always have to design with the end goal and the audience in mind.

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