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
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.