For more than 50 years, video games have evolved beyond the scope of our imagination. They’ve become an integral part of daily life as the ultimate form of entertainment and relaxation.
Digital games are not only changing the way we have fun but also the way we learn, train, exercise, conduct research and even buy products. Today game makers are breaking ground across every industry and are looking to unlock the full potential of digital games other than for commercial entertainment.
If video games can keep us engaged for hours, how can we use game technology to craft a life-changing experience? How can we tap into game play mechanics to influence the masses to take action against global warming? How can we use games to delve deep into data and make scientific breakthroughs?
These games that go beyond entertainment, are known as serious games.
1. What are serious games?
Explore the definition of serious games and its components. Compare serious games with commercial games and gamification.
2. Why do we use serious games?
Discover the growing list of reasons why we use serious games at work, home and school.
3. What are the different types of serious games?
Learn about the 2 types of serious games, how they're structured and how they're categorised based on their purpose.
4. Where do we use serious games?
Uncover which industries are using serious games and how they're being applied in modern businesses.
5. Who is making serious games?
Find out which serious games are changing our world, this list of serious game examples are worth checking out!
What are serious games?
Serious games (also known as applied games) is a broad term that was first used to distinguish casual games for fun from games that have a serious outcome.
Serious games are games or game-like systems built with game technology and design principles for a purpose other than pure entertainment.
Serious games have added intrinsic value embedded within its in-game mechanics, narrative and design. This is what sets them apart from commercial, entertainment video games.
I often read articles claiming, “serious games are just games intended for a purpose other than fun” or “serious games are just games with a serious purpose”. Despite the widespread use of the term, I’ve always considered ‘serious games’ to be a terrible name for what are essentially, transformative experiences.
The best serious games are never boring nor serious - they are equal parts entertaining and meaningful.
Serious Games vs. Commercial Games
Commercial entertainment games are marketed and sold based on brand recognition, graphical fidelity, and game play features, they are ultimately built for the consumer’s amusement and fun.
The end aim of serious games is to make a lasting impact on the players. They are built with a purpose, which can be to teach the player tangible skills, change consumer behaviour and even conduct research. Serious games should definitely be entertaining, but they most importantly must provide the appropriate content and outcomes, through the right platforms, and at the right time.
The evolution of technology and gamification of daily tasks contribute to the rise of serious games. They are transcending technological and social boundaries every day.
Serious Games vs. Gamification
Gamification is a term often grouped together with serious games and it’s important to understand the differences between both approaches. Gamification is described as the application of game elements into a non-game environment in order to give it a game-like feel.
Whilst both gamification and serious games are used to fuel player motivation, the main difference between the two is their structure. Gamification only integrates game-like mechanics like leader boards, badges and quests into projects whilst serious games are structured as full-scale games that emphasise the completion of a goal.
It’s important to note that serious games and gamification are two different concepts and should not be used interchangeably.
Want to know more about the gamification? Read my blog here!
Why do we use serious games?
In 1938, Dutch historian Johan Huizinga described the human being as intrinsically playful, and ‘play’ as a serious and fundamental aspect of social interaction and cultural development. As children, play allows us to engage and interact with the world around us and it's important for developing imagination and motor skills. In an increasingly digital and play-centric world, as adults we look to video games to not only entertain us but to motivate and inspire us - it's what makes games so appealing to any demographic.
Why do we play video games?
People have been playing analogue and digital games for the simple reason that they make us happy. After years of collecting data from game development studios, research company Immersyve wanted to explain basic human needs in order to understand what makes playing games so appealing. They discovered that gaming targets three psychological needs:
- Competency - The feeling of achievement is a sensation most humans chase, we want to be good at something and be recognised for it. Games are able to manifest our progress and goals through game flow, we're able to improve a skill in a way that is engaging and fun.
- Autonomy - Most humans desire independence and want to be in control of their actions. Players can take control of their characters' actions in games and in some cases manipulate the in-game environment to suit their preferences.
- Relatedness - Humans relate to in-game stories, characters and environments that may reflect their lives in some way. Games can help individuals feel a sense of belonging, whether with a family or group, within a society or even be comfortable with themselves - for players to be truly immersed in a game, it's important for them to connect with the content.
Over the years, studies have shown other features that are attractive to players; however, most digital games have a way of fulfilling the three psychological needs at a very basic level.
Why do we play serious games?
Early serious game pioneers saw the potential of video games and sought to utilise the positive effects of gaming to simulate real life. Developers realised games not only appealed to children and 'gamers' but bridged the gap between users and their goals, games are the ultimate engagement engine.
Studies show that serious games appeal to our intrinsic human motivational needs and have the power to tap into our brain and motivate behavioural change, trigger real emotions and create memorable user experiences. Simply put, we use serious games because we want our messages to transcend all boundaries and make a lasting impact on players.
Here are 8 main reasons why we use serious games today:
Boost in Engagement
Individual attention span is decreasing at an alarming rate, the average human attention span in 2000 was 12 seconds and in 2015 it was 8.25 seconds. Bottom line is that people are no longer consuming information or engaging with content the same way as a decade ago.
Serious games can capture attention by translating complex topics into immersive stories and drawing on the player’s emotional, cognitive, social motivations. We are constantly learning, under different circumstances, through various styles, and traditional teaching methods are now considered to be dry and dull. Games inject new life into potentially boring subjects, they are 'engagement engines' - they fuel high-levels of engagement by captivating audience through immersive game play.
The serious games industry can bridge the gap between theory and practical. Participants are encouraged to learn by doing and applying their knowledge into real-life scenarios in order to improve on their decision-making and problem-solving skills.
Serious games can be applied to self monitoring, enhanced problem recognition and problem-solving abilities, and increased social skills such as collaboration, negotiation, and decision making. Because of this, serious games can be applied to a broad spectrum of industry vertical markets such as military, government, education, corporate, and healthcare.
Educational simulation games for children can be particularly effective in teaching fundamental skills at an early stage, and these skills quickly translate into mastery in real-life scenarios.
Interactive experiences have a higher chance of being remembered by participants than information presented through a static medium. A game's story, art and sound design have the potential to resonate with the player on several levels, including the emotional, intellectual, and physical.
Apparently 50% of business transformation programs fail due to poor employee engagement - it's not enough to captivate audiences, you must continue to retain their interest over time.
Engagement loops are the best way to motivate people, they can also help visualise the user experience. The stages of the engagement loop are 1. motivation, 2. a call to action (or challenge), 3. an action, and then 4. feedback. Once this loop is completed by the player, if the game is designed well, the player restarts the loop. In games, engagement usually follows a progression of increasing difficulty called cognitive flow.
Digital games are more accessible than ever, from households to hospitals, from handheld consoles to VR platforms, more video games are created across every digital platform. Serious games can be played from a myriad of devices, about 67% of Americans, or roughly 211 million people, play video games on at least one type of device, with more than half of those who game, playing on multiple platforms. The device plays a crucial role in the effectiveness of the serious game and each platform has its own advantages and disadvantages.
Serious games for learning have the potential to teach complex cognitive skills in an engaging way, at relatively low costs when compared to traditional teaching and training methods. They are also built to be scalable should you require your game to be expanded or scaled back, as their infrastructure allows for this flexibility. Whether you need to engage an audience of 100 people or 100,000, games can reach a lot of people with little extra cost.
Feedback loops are used in games to ensure the player is taking the right path towards the intended outcome. This helps players immediately see where they are going wrong. They can rectify their actions and practice the correct method, which prevents them from committing bad habits to their long-term memory.
Feedback Loops are in fact powerful tools that can help people change bad behaviour patterns, even those that seem intractable. Just as important, they can be used to encourage good habits, turning progress itself into a reward. In other words, feedback loops change human behaviour.
Determining and measuring the return-on-investment of traditional training might be difficult. But, with serious games the metrics are available. Analytics can do a deep dive into the user’s mind to determine their engagement levels. The data captured can be further used to fine-tune and optimise the game.
Tracking and reporting
Measuring outcomes through serious games means you can track a sufficient amount of data, which would be difficult and time consuming to capture in traditional methods. Results and reporting can be automated and the faster you know your results, the quicker you can take action to improve the game or change things in the real world to maximise impact.
The second element of measurement and reporting is that it benefits the player. If the players can view their progress, they can understand their actions and mistakes, and be motivated to improve. (Refer to feedback loop above.)
Personalisation is also a great component of this. You get feedback and reports just customised to your needs, all in real time - a feat that traditional methods would find almost impossible to reproduce.
Serious games offer a safe environment for players to experiment and ultimately learn at their own pace. Participants feel a sense of autonomy as they can train, practise skills and make discoveries within a controlled environment. They’re free to explore different paths with different results without real-world consequences, this allows players to take ownership of their actions.
A concept used in video games, the magic circle outlines the fundamental boundaries of play, it defines the rules, mechanics, setting, objectives and player roles in any game, digital or real-world. Although the magic circle is an artificial construct, when players enter and then leaves the magic circle they return to the real world with newfound skills, knowledge, and motivations.
Where do we use serious games?
In recent years, serious game developers have revolutionised everyday activities and business practices for the purposes of enhancing engagement and productivity. Serious games are a proven tool for creating lasting change in the world and they play an increasingly significant role in shaping today’s society. We are always discovering new applications for serious games, they've proven to be the most effective medium for engaging players for a wide range of purposes.
Practitioners, researchers and developers from all around the world attend serious games conferences, they share expertise and resources across all industries.
The serious games market is segmented by market-based and purpose-based classifications. Market-based classifications describe the industries that have adopted serious games to help special interest groups.
The evolution of technology has skyrocketed serious game development and each day new innovative approaches are discovered; they've become a modern day necessity for organisations across all industries. The education and aerospace and defense markets have been using games for the past 20 years for recruitment and training purposes, and we're likely to see the production of retail and healthcare serious games grow in the next few years.
Here are seven industries where serious games are used:
Today educational games are more widespread than ever, 74% of teachers implement digital game-based learning into their lessons. From kindergarten to university students, serious games are the most effective medium for the teaching curriculum.
Digital games have revolutionised training in the health industry, medical simulation offers a cost-effective and risk-free alternative to traditional medical training for procedures. Games are also used as a clinical therapy tool to aid in rehabilitation.
Fitness and Well-being
Fitness games are a popular genre across today’s consoles. Console peripherals like the Nintendo Switch controller and PS4 handheld sensors are used to track the player’s active progress.
Simulations are often the ideal form of training in the field of security, serious games are used to train personnel in disaster control and expose them to potential life-threatening situations.
Simulation is used in the Aeronautics industry to train future pilots in virtual environments, develop flight systems, test products and assess mission feasibility.
In government, games and gaming methods have been gaining steam for training, change management and employee culture improvement as well as externally to boost citizen engagement.
NGO games have become popular in recent years as organisations are looking for new ways to capture the attention of the masses. Their aim is to raise awareness and encourage change on global humanitarian, cultural, and environmental problems affecting our society.
Vertical industries describes a group of businesses that are implementing serious games. Applications define the structure and function of the game, serious games are categorised by the method it will be delivered to players.
Here are four applications of serious games throughout various industries:
Simulation and Training
Workplace training has evolved alongside technology, training processes are transformed into serious games to not only engage employees but also measure their progress. Serious games are especially useful when it comes to developing skills in the world of business, such as communication, negotiation, leadership, time management skills, and many more.
Research and Planning
Serious games can fuel scientific exploration and experimental research. Citizen science is a sub-genre of serious games that encourages mass participation. Citizen science projects involve non-professionals taking part in crowd sourcing, data analysis, and data collection.
Social impact games aim to engage players by changing their perspectives or persuading them to take positive actions towards social change like signing a petition, donating, and/or volunteering.
Advertising and Marketing
Advertising and marketing games are developed by or in close collaboration with a corporate entity for purposes of advertising a brand-name product.
What are the different types of serious games?
There are a myriad of games and game-like activities under the serious games umbrella and each offers its advantages in its field of application. Before you can apply them to the relevant business and use them to meet your goals, you need to understand the different types of serious games.
All serious games can be categorised by their function and structure, they fall into one of the following two types: outcome-based games and process-oriented games.
Outcome-oriented games compel the player to complete activities to achieve a set goal. All activities within the game revolve around reaching the goal, which is usually the mastery of a skill or completion of an action. Outcome-oriented games are most effective for Educational, Persuasion and Motivation purposes.
Most education games use an approach called game-based learning that combines learning content with game design frameworks such as complex storytelling, rules, game mechanics, art design and interactivity to motivate learning through an engaging format.
Persuasive games aim to change the participants' perspective on a topic or motivate them to take immediate action. Applications of persuasive games include:
Advergames are designed to change the attitude or behaviour of the target consumer through brand engagement and messaging.
Political games aim to promote political ideas, they spread and reinforce messaging as well as compel participants to take action.
Motivation games provide a set of incentives in the real world for participants in the game, like fitness games they encourage players to achieve their intrinsic goals.
Process-oriented games are driven by discovery and lack endgame objectives. The player’s decision-making processes throughout the experience holds the key learning value. Process-oriented games are most effective for Discovery, Decision-Making and Simulation purposes.
Serious games that focus mainly on discovery can be used to find new insights about a subject. Discovery games can be used in the following ways:
Research games are used to understand human behaviour and gather data in a measurable and reproducible environment.
Games can be used to target potential customers in order to gather information about personal preferences and buying decisions.
Team-building exercises are implemented to create relationships and build trust within an organisation.
Games driven by decision making seek to simplify complex decision-making processes. Streamlining these processes into a game can be used for the following purposes:
Gamified systems can help minimise manual input for maximum results and lead to an increase in productivity.
Games can be used in the creative process to generate ideas for decision makers, brainstorming and prototyping is made easier through game play.
Allows citizens to not only be part of the decision-making process, but to ensure lasting and genuine engagement in political decisions.
Simulation games allow participants to explore real-world situations and activities in a virtual space. A simulation game attempts to copy various activities from real life in the form of a game for various purposes such as training, analysis, or prediction.
Prediction applications help assess future scenarios and plausible outcomes using simulation and gathered data.
Simulation games work best for visualisation, data are presented graphically in order to gain new perspective or simplify complex concepts.
Who is making serious games?
SimRefinery by Chevron and Maxis Business Simulations (1993)
Industry: Industrial Sector
Application: Management Simulation for Training
Oil refineries are very complicated and in 1993 the executives at Chevron Richmond Refinery needed a system that could accurately demonstrate complex refinery dynamics and operations to its employees.
After the success of SimCity, Chevron tasked Maxis Business Simulations with designing a simulation of their refinery after they realised its employees felt disconnected from other levels of the business, and struggled to understand how their individual roles contributed to the overall operations.
EndeavourRX by Akili Interactive (2020)
Application: Prescription Video Game
Platform: iOS on iPhone and iPad
EndeavourRX is the first of its kind in the world, it’s the first ever medication video game to treat children between 8-12 years old for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). After 7 years of clinical testing, the Federal Drug Association (FDA) approved the prescription of EndeavourRX by healthcare professionals to help treat ADHD.
EndeavorRx has been evaluated in over 600 children with ADHD across 5 clinical trials. The treatment programmed into the game was scientifically designed to challenge a child's brain during treatment requiring the child’s attention and to focus on multiple tasks at the same time.
Minecraft Education Edition by Microsoft (2018)
Application: Education and Training
Platforms: Windows, Chromebook, iMac, iPad
Based on the world's most popular building sim game first by Mojang, Minecraft exploded onto the scene in 2009 and has now become the world's best-selling video game of all time with 200 million copies sold across all platforms and 126 million monthly active users as of 2020.
Minecraft Education Edition offers free resources to help educators and families stay connected, navigate remote education and engage in creative learning. The Education Edition uses fun challenges, immersive worlds in the Minecraft universe to teach valuable STEM lessons, educators in more than 115 countries are using Minecraft: Education Edition across the curriculum.
Pulse!! by BreakAway Games and Dr. Claudia Johnston (2006)
Application: Clinical Therapy
Platform: Windows PC
Pulse!! was launched by serious game company BreakAway Games, as a virtual training tool for medical and nursing students on PC. Students assumed the role of a healthcare provider who must correctly diagnose the patients under their care. The game allowed students to apply their theoretical knowledge, the simulation translated the complexities of medical training into a practical learning experience without any real-life risks.
"In (Pulse!!), individuals, usually medical students, take on the role of a physician or nurse and play through scenarios as one would in an MMOG," said Dr. Johnston. Pulse!! focused on high-level critical thinking, diagnostic reasoning and clinical skills conforming to Advanced Trauma Life Support (ATLS) training and Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME) core competencies.
Fortnite Creative by Epic Games (2018)
Application: Education and Training
Platforms: Windows, MacOS, Playstation 4, Xbox One, iOS, Nintendo Switch and Android
Fortnite Creative is a sandbox game, part of the popular online battle royale game, Fortnite. Creative mode allows players to freely create content on their own Creative Islands. On their island players make the rules, fill it with their favourite things and favourite people. Nonprofit Games For Change and Fortnite developer have teamed up to bring Fortnite Creative to schools, with this unique mode helping schools teach game development.
Students from William Annin Middle School used a wide range of devices, traps and settings to build out a full game in the Creative mode for their final project. Their teacher Steve Isaac also helped fellow educators to implement Fortnite Creative into their history courses, he said “I expect to see it used in all content areas, as the sandbox environment lends itself well to creating content for any subject area”.
Planet Hunters TESS by Zooniverse (2018)
Application: Research and Scientific Discovery
Planet Hunters uses people-powered research to fuel scientific discovery, the recently launched Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) is providing scientists with a huge amount of data that lets us look for planets outside of our own Solar System.
Over the next two years TESS will be busy surveying two-hundred-thousand bright nearby stars, measuring and recording their brightness every two minutes. With the help of volunteers, Planet Hunters hope to uncover lots of interesting planetary systems to explore and study the formation and evolution of new worlds. To date, Planet Hunters' volunteers found over 100 new planetary systems in data from TESS's predecessor, Kepler, and they expect to find even more with the TESS data.
Bravemind by Dr. Rizzo and Institute of Creative Technologies (2005)
Application: Clinical Exposure Therapy
Bravemind is currently in use at VA hospitals, military bases and university centres in the USA as a virtual reality exposure therapy (VRET) simulation. It recreates unique interactive scenarios to help soldiers normalise the experiences they went through and have been shown to produce a meaningful reduction in post-traumatic stress (PTS) symptoms. There have been several forms of treatment for PTSD including medication and psychotherapy but recovery is challenging and time consuming. Exposure theory has emerged as a leader in effective treatment; it is believed that VR helps PTSD patients get better, and faster than from simply describing the trauma because it adds a sensory element.
As Dr. Rizzo described, “Exposure therapy is an ideal match with VR. You can place people in provocative environments and systematically control the stimulus presentation. In some sense, it’s the perfect application because we can take evidence-based treatments and use it as a tool to amplify the effect of the treatment.”
Bleached Az by Chaos Theory (2019)
Industry: Environmental Conservation
Application: Social Impact
Based on the viral 2008 Aussie cartoon, Beached Az, Bleached Az the mobile is all about confrontational humour and social purpose. Players must save the hopeless coral from the dangers of plastic pollution and over fishing, the game promotes ocean health awareness and motivates players to actively contribute to environmental conservation.
The original creators of Beached Az were set to launch the newest instalment to the Beached Az franchise, dedicated to promoting ocean health awareness and addressing climate change issues. We jumped at the opportunity to team up to create a game for good that motivates players to actively contribute to environmental conservation through an interactive and engaging new platform.
Pacific: The Leadership Game by Game Learn (2015)
Industry: Game-based corporate learning and training
Application: Leadership and Management Training
Platform: Online Course
Pacific is a serious game devoted to teaching management strategy, with a survivalist spin. It’s a game-based learning course for leadership and team management in which you will learn and apply strategies, techniques and tools to develop and improve your leadership and team management skills. Developed by game-based learning company Game Learn, Pacific has over 25,000 students online, it offers comprehensive training course in 6 modules for managers and leaders from all levels of business.
Working with Water by Central Coast Council and Chaos Theory (2020)
Industry: Local Council
Application: Water Management Learning
Working with Water is a turn-based strategy web game helping teach students about developing and maintaining a sustainable water supply system in the Central Coast. The game takes place in the Central Coast of Australia where the need for clean drinking water increases as the community grows, and the player is responsible for building new infrastructures to meet the increased demand.
As part of the Central Coast Council's (CCC) Love Water campaign, we were tasked with developing a game to simulate the real life challenges of water management for the growing population of the Central Coast. CCC manages its own water supply for the entire region and they wanted an informative yet engaging platform to educate its community about their water management services.
How can serious games transform your business?
Now that you know more about serious games, it's not hard to see the important role they play in our society. Well-designed and purposeful serious games have the power to not only make positive change for businesses but also transform the lives of the players. Serious games draw upon our most basic human motivational needs and provide us with an opportunity to have fun, improve ourselves and/or make a real difference in the world.