Monday, July 27, 2009

Some Thoughts about Serious Games

This is going to be part 1 of 2 of my critiques on two different "genres" of games. This first part is about serious games. I've got some personal experience with this subject matter, as my very own school has a department dedicated to the creation of these "serious" games. I'm going to be completely honest here; I hate the term "serious game". I'm going to give you some official definitions, and then I'm going to tell you why I think it's a value judgment on our industry, and then I'll let you know how that value judgment actually works against us rather than propelling us forward. By us, I mean all developers in every part of the industry, including "serious" game designers.

So, what are serious games? I've found a few definitions that I’ll list here.

From the Michigan State University website (MSU hosts a conference called "Meaningful Play" that is all about serious games, so I think their definition can be used for reference): "Serious games are games with purpose beyond just providing entertainment. Examples include, but are not limited to, games for learning, games for health, and games for policy and social change."

Wikipedia says: "A serious game is a software or hardware application developed with game technology and game design principles for a primary purpose other than pure entertainment."

Gamasutra’s sister site Serious Games Source says: "...games created for training, health, government, military, educational and other uses."

So there is one thing these definitions agree on, save for the last one. That is that serious games are for something other than "pure entertainment". This implies that any game that is "non-serious" is only for entertainment. These people are implying, some explicitly so, that any game which is non-serious cannot have a real impact beyond being entertaining. Uh, what? Not only that, but to give themselves credibility they lump in government and military training simulators and educational titles.

So, what we're really looking at is a number of two different types of serious games. Those that are developed explicitly for classroom use, government, and training purposes and also those games which are intended for the general public to promote some idea or theme.

Tackling these two categories separately really leads to a breakdown of "serious games" as a term. As far as educational games, training simulators and medical software goes this stuff has been around for a long time and do just fine without being labeled as serious games. They’re called simulators and trainers or “Educational Software”. That is all they need to be called. Most of these wouldn't even be recognizable as a game to the rest of us, because they're not for us, they're for airline pilots and the like. Educational games can be called just that. When a school program is looking to purchase some software to aid its teachers, it probably doesn't mind having them called Educational Games or Educational Software. That's kind of what they do. Calling all of these things serious games is a tactic by the serious games promoters to make themselves seem more legitimate than they really are. These games were being made long before the recent serious games publicity and will continue to do just fine.

That leaves us with the serious games which are supposed to be just like those normal games we play, but with serious and poignant themes in mind. Wait, don't we have these already? Didn't Far Cry 2 touch on the poverty and power struggles in Africa? Didn't Bioshock try to challenge our notions of freedom (“A man chooses, a slave obeys”)? And how many countless games have been satirical but serious critiques of western society (Fallout, Grand Theft Auto)? Now, those games aren't perfect. They haven't all even accomplished what they set out to do, necessarily. But they try and they becoming more potent with each iteration. Why aren't they called serious games? Because, as with education games and simulators, it's superfluous.

It’s not as if the “serious games” crowd has a large repertoire of successes to claim either. They’ve done no better than Bethesda or Ubisoft or EA at this, because this is a rapidly changing highly experimental medium. We’re all getting better at this at the same time. But serious developers are actually starting back at square one, intentionally. Rather than work with those tools that we have already crafted, they try and reinvent the wheel. They seem to think that all of these techniques we’ve created for immersion and engaging players in other games won’t work in their serious games. Why not?

Rarely, if ever, will people make this kind of distinction in film or literature. Nor will those authors writing with serious intent eschew the techniques of those writers who write for entertainment. There is a reason that many philosophers wrote novels: They get the point across without making it dry and boring. Calling these games serious does nothing except erect a big wall between developers who are trying to accomplish the same goal. It’s a wall that prevents healthy discourse between developers, businesses, and students.

Frankly, it's damned arrogant. The term came about through a mixture of marketing on the part of the colleges and through a level of arrogance for developers who wanted to separate themselves from those other designers who make games just for fun. I truly believe that a large portion of it comes from a desire to say, "I make serious games, about how beating women is wrong." so that they can get a pat on the back from those ignorant of the power already inherent in mass market games.

We need to stand up for ourselves as an industry. We're going on a solid 40 years now, we don't have to pretend like this is just kids’ stuff anymore and we sure as hell don't have to label any attempts at mature themes as "serious". It's condescending, it’s counter-productive, and it’s unnecessary.

1 comment:

Flessen0 said...

So there is one thing these definitions agree on, save for the last one. That is that serious games are for something other than "pure entertainment". This implies that any game that is "non-serious" is only for entertainment. These people are implying, some explicitly so, that any game which is non-serious cannot have a real impact beyond being entertaining

Not to start off on a negative note intentionally, But your analysis is wrong. All three definitions you provided speak about the primary purpose of a serious game. They say nothing about intentions of other games. I use this as my starting off point because I feel like you miss the fundamental purpose of explicit designing serious games and the goals involved in doing so.

The primary purpose of a serious game is to educate, instruct, make aware, or motivate a person, or groups of people, for some reason. They use a form of entertaining and interactive technology to do so, for reasons I don't think I need to describe.

Because this primary purpose differs from what I believe is the primary purpose of other more general games (which is to say entertainment) I believe the distinction is a good one. It is not to say that a serious game can not have entertainment, or that Grand Theft Auto can't be made to prove a point, just that what they want to accomplish in being created is different. (Which also generally includes things like money. I can't imagine most serious games developers are being pushed by publishers who need big earnings to justify investments)

That leaves us with the serious games which are supposed to be just like those normal games we play, but with serious and poignant themes in mind. Wait, don't we have these already? Didn't Far Cry 2 touch on the poverty and power struggles in Africa? Didn't Bioshock try to challenge our notions of freedom (“A man chooses, a slave obeys”)?

You explicitly (in my opinion)state why a distinction exists. Far Cry may have touched on poverty and power struggles, and Bioshock did challenge our notions of freedom. And yes these are intentional themes introduced by the designers. These are also alternative pieces, and are supplemental to the core gameplay. In serious games you can not separate the message from the play in my opinion. But even if you don't subscribe to that definition, you must understand that a game where the whole game fundamentally revolves around providing the player an educational experience in some way.

Yes this leaves a vague line as to what differentiates a serious game from a not-serious game. And this is probably something the developers can really say what they intended.

Also on a personal note I think that your perspective comes to much from that of a game designer. Look at the typical kid who idolizes the lifestyles that Grand Theft Auto makes fun of. I doubt they recognize the satire. Games for a lot of people are not something they think deep about at night, and in the end many of the artful intentions of developers can be missed fairly easily by someone paying somewhat close attention to the game. Serious games make it impossible to miss because they push it right in your face many times at the cost of things like entertainment.

Which finally about the whole cocky serious games developer piece. Yeah? So? Do you feel like people are stealing the spotlight from you, or making your profession less legitimate by them talking about serious games. Because workers in Not For Profit, who need a confidence boost have been doing that forever. Thats not something you can really get away from, and sometimes you do have to accept that people do that and not let them get to you like that.

That being said good piece, definitely something that needs to be talked about regardless of my stance.