Serious Games: Too Broad a Term to be Meaningful

A while back, I wrote a piece on the difference between serious games, games and gamification. It was simple, but covered the important areas of what makes them different from each other.  Since then, I have had more involvement with serious games (recently helped as one of the judges for the Serious Play Awards for instance) and it has started to dawn on me that we are still confused as to what they actually are.

Yesterday, Mattie Brice posted the following on twitter

Soon after, Raph Koster replied with


It was an interesting mix and one that I really like. I love that he has included MS Flight Sim, for instance.  My first response was Darfur is dying and Plantville (which I have spoken about in the past).

However, what got me thinking was just how broad this mix was. It went from teaching games, to simulators to games that tried to get across a deep meaning and lesson about the hardships people are facing in the world. Is lumping all of these under the banner of serious games doing them a disservice?

Ian Bogost recently did a talk about serious games, he expressed the idea that really what we want to talk about is ‘earnest games’. His big issue with serious games was that they’re not really that concerned about being games” . Whether he is right or wrong, he raises some interesting questions about the state of serious games. Many are little more than graphical, interactive teaching aides – nothing to do with real games. For me, that isn’t actually such a bad thing. Graphical and interactive is still better than reading a text book – but it still isn’t a game however you look at it, so why should we define it as a serious game?

Having looked at an array of games that fall under the banner of seious games, they can be roughly split into four  types, based on the design intent of the game that is their main intent is not that of pure entertainment. Teaching Game, Simulator, Meaningful Game and Purposeful Game. I am ignoring interactive, non game teaching materials!

Teaching Game / Games for Learning

This is a game where you are taught how to do something, by playing a real game. The example that springs to mind from the group I reviewed is Phantomation. This was a game that was designed to teach you how to use the animation software Play Sketch. Rather than just showing you the tools, it has you solving various puzzles that need deeper and deeper understanding of the tool. The big thing with this game was that it could be enjoyed as a game in its own right, even if you didn’t have an interest in learning the tool!

Phantomation6 300x225 Serious Games Too Broad a Term to be Meaningful


A simulator is where you are interacting with a virtual version of something real. Raph Koster mentioned MS Flight, which is a great example.  Whilst this game does have the ability to set tasks and missions, used as a training aide it does not need gameplay. The idea is to learn how to fly a plane. Another interesting entry to the Serious Play Awards was Cornak. This game sets out to teach you the basics of selling products and managing a client portfolio. It simulates a company that sells red and blue cubes and puts you at the heart of managing it. On the one hand, you could say that this is a teaching game, as it has scenarios and is about a fictitious company. Where a teaching game, like Phanotmation was all about teaching you how to do something, a simulator is about giving you a virtual way of practicing something.

3674 Serious Games 300x226 Serious Games Too Broad a Term to be Meaningful

 Meaningful Game / Games for Good

This is a game that tries to get a across a meaningful message and if possible promote change with that message. An example of this would be Darfur is Dying. This was the result of a competition run by the Reebok Human  Rights Foundation and the International Crisis Group. Five students from the University of Southern California created the winning game, that placed you in the shoes of a displaced Darfurian refugee. It aimed to show the hardships faced by the millions of people who had been displaced by the crisis in Sudan. Rather than trying to teach you a tool or a method of doing something, this type of game is trying to inform you about things that may never have crossed your mind in a way that is engaging and meaningful.

Darfur is dying 300x213 Serious Games Too Broad a Term to be Meaningful
Darfur is Dying

Purposeful Game

The idea of a purposeful game is that playing it has some sort of real world outcome. Three examples of this come to mind. FoldIt, Tilt World and Digitakoot. FoldIt is a popular game that is often cited by gamification folk. It is a puzzle game that sets the player the task of predicting the structure of proteins by folding it. Understanding how proteins fold can help lead to the development cures all sorts of sorts of diseases, including HIV and even Cancer. Humans are really good at solving puzzles, so much so that in just ten days, gamers had solved one enzymatic structure that scientists had been trying to unravel for more than a decade. Tilt World, by Nicole Lazzaro, is a mobile game that puts you in the body of the last tadpole – Flip. You must eat carbon from the air in an attempt to restore sunshine to flips home.  Whilst this may seem like a meaningful game, in that it is trying to promote a message about ecology, the unique thing about Tilt World is that playing it leads to trees being planted in Madagascar.    My final example is Digitalkoot. Here the player had to type words as they appear, building a bridge for a mole to walk along. Each word is actually scanned in from newspapers, books and journals from Finland’s National Library. The players are effectively checking the OCR that computers have done already.

Foldit 300x183 Serious Games Too Broad a Term to be Meaningful

In summary

  • Teaching Game: Teaches you something using real gameplay.
  • Simulator: A virtual version of something from the real world that allows safe practice and testing.
  • Meaningful Game: Uses gameplay to promote a meaningful message to the player.
  • Purposeful Game: Uses games to create direct real world outcomes.

So back to my original question. Is Serious Games too broad a term? In my opinion, yes. There are so many types of game that could fall into this, that we should stop just throwing them all under the one title, even for convenience. If you have to, talk about games designed for non entertainment purposes. How can a term that currently holds anything from Americas Army to Darfur is dying be meaningful anymore – it can’t.

One thing that is clear though, if you are going to call it a game – make it a game!

A little addition. here is a chart that shows this in the context of Game Thinking – work in progress, but may add some value.

Breaking down game thinking 300x225 Serious Games Too Broad a Term to be Meaningful
breaking down game thinking

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9 thoughts on “Serious Games: Too Broad a Term to be Meaningful”

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