The Ultimate Guide to Serious Games 2021

Everything you need know about serious games
Written By
A portrait of Nico King. Executive Creative Director and Serious Games Expert from Chaos Theory  - Chaos Theory | Serious Games Developer, Australia
Nico King

Contents

What are Serious Games?

Video games can keep us engaged for hours. They are part of our daily ritual of fun and relaxation.

How can we tap into game play mechanics to influence the masses to take action against global warming? How can we use game technology to delve deep into data and make scientific breakthroughs?

Games that go beyond entertainment, are known as serious games.
A promo image for S.W.A.P, a first-person shooter developed by Sydney based Game Development Studio Chaos Theory Games

Defining serious games

Serious games are games created for a purpose other than pure entertainment.

Serious games have added intrinsic value embedded within their mechanics, narrative and design. This is what sets them apart from commercial, entertainment video games.

The best serious games are never boring nor serious - they are equal parts entertaining and meaningful.

Serious Games Market 2020

Our latest infographic explores the market from 2020 and beyond.

Did you know that the fastest growing serious games market is the Asia Pacific region? More business, schools and governments are adopting serious games to future-proof their learning, training and research.

Click the preview to enlarge the infographic.

Learn about Serious Games Terminology

A vector graphic showing people Developing for AR, VR and Mobile  - Chaos Theory | Serious Games Developer, Australia

Serious Games
vs
Commercial Games

Commercial 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.

Serious games are built with a purpose, which can be to teach the player tangible skills, change consumer behaviour and even conduct research.

An isometric vector of a laptop and various interfaces  - Chaos Theory | Serious Games Developer, Australia

Serious Games
vs
Gamification

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 are used to fuel player motivation, the main difference between the two is their structure.

Serious games are structured as full-scale games that emphasises the completion of a goal.

A vector graphic showing people on their devices  - Chaos Theory | Serious Games Developer, Australia

Serious Games
vs
Game-Based Learning

Game-based learning (GBL) is the process and practise of learning by using games.

The difference between GBL and a serious game is that GBL is a learning methodology, and a serious game is a product in which GBL is possible.

GBL is specifically made for classroom by an instructor for their students.

Why do we Play 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.

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 3 psychological needs:

A vector graphic representing competency. A man is standing by a laptop and watching the launch of a rocketship - Chaos Theory | Serious Games Developer, Australia

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 our preferences.
A vector isometric graphic representing Autonomy. People are studying an interface. - Chaos Theory | Serious Games Developer, Australia
An isometric vector graphic representing Relatedness. A group of people working on their devices. - Chaos Theory | Serious Games Developer, Australia

Relatedness

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 in-game elements.

What are the Benefits of Serious Games?

Early pioneers saw the potential of video games and sought to utilise the positive effects of gaming to simulate real life situations. Games bridge the gap between a user and their goal and have become 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 the 8 main reasons why we use serious games today:

A photograph of people playing games on their mobile devices  - Chaos Theory | Serious Games Developer, Australia

1. 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 and through varying styles. 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.
A photograph of a young boy using a virtual reality headset  - Chaos Theory | Serious Games Developer, Australia

2. Practical Application

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. Serious games can be applied to a broad spectrum of industry verticals 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.
A diagram created by Chaos Theory to represent the Serious Games Engagement Loop - Chaos Theory | Serious Games Developer, Australia

3. Prolonged Retention

Interactive experiences have a higher chance of being remembered by participants than information presented through a static medium. A games’ story, art and sound design has the potential to resonate with the player on several levels, including emotionally, intellectually, and physically.

Apparently 50% of business transformation programs fail due to poor employee engagement - it's not enough to just captivate audiences, you must continue to retain their interest over time.
Engagement Loop
Engagement loops are the best way to motivate people and 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 designed well, the player restarts the loop. In games, engagement usually follows a progression of increasing difficulty called cognitive flow.
A photograph of a young boy and a woman using a desktop computer together - Chaos Theory | Serious Games Developer, Australia

4. Widespread Platforms

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, 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 their own advantages and disadvantages.
A photograph of a person's desk with a calculator and other devices - Chaos Theory | Serious Games Developer, Australia

5. Cost Effective

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 100,000, games can reach a lot of people with little extra cost.
A diagram by Chaos Theory depicting the Serious Games Feedback Loop  - Chaos Theory | Serious Games Developer, Australia

6. Instant Feedback

Feedback loops are used in games to ensure the player is takes 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 Loop
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.
A photograph of a young boy on a desktop computer  - Chaos Theory | Serious Games Developer, Australia

7. Measurable Outcomes

Determining and measuring the return-on-investment of traditional training is 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 with serious games means you can track valuable data, which would be difficult and time-consuming to capture in traditional methods. Results and reporting help you take action to improve the game or change things in the real world to maximise impact.
Personalisation
Personalisation is also a great component of this. The collection of data allows you to personalise your game to better suit the needs of your players.
A diagram created by Chaos Theory, depicting the flow of the Magic Circle in Serious Games - Chaos Theory | Serious Games Developer, Australia

8. Safe Environment

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.
Magic Circle
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 a player enters and then leaves the magic circle they return to the real-world with newfound skills, knowledge, and motivations.

Which Industries use Serious Games?

Serious games have become a modern day necessity for organisations across all industries.

The education and aerospace & defence 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 7 industries of where serious games are used:

A photograph of children learning on their tablet devices - Chaos Theory | Serious Games Developer, Australia

Education

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 teaching curriculum.

Non-for-Profit

NFP 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.
A screenshot from the WWF's augmented reality game WWF Free Rivers - Chaos Theory | Serious Games Developer, Australia
A photograph from the Walmart virtual reality training program  - Chaos Theory | Serious Games Developer, Australia

Corporate Training

Simulation is used for training and development, it improves the effectiveness of individuals and teams.

Curious about the future of workplace training? Check out our infographic on 'How AR/VR will transform the way you train employees'
Read our Infographic

Government

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.
A screenshot from a game about political parties and policies  - Chaos Theory | Serious Games Developer, Australia
A photograph of scientists using augmented reality glasses for research and healthcare purposes - Chaos Theory | Serious Games Developer, Australia

Healthcare

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.
A photograph of a man playing Ringfit on a Nintendo Switch Console  - Chaos Theory | Serious Games Developer, Australia

How do we Apply Serious Games?

Vertical industries describes a group of businesses that are implementing serious games. Whilst applications define the structure and function of the game, it categorises serious games by the method it will be delivered to players.

Here are 4 applications of serious games throughout various industries:

An isometric graphic of a character using a virtual reality headset - Chaos Theory | Serious Games Developer, Australia

Simulation & 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 & Planning

Serious games can fuel scientific exploration and experimental research. Citizen science is a sub-genre of serious games that encourage mass participation.

Citizen science projects involve non-professionals taking part in crowd-sourcing, data analysis, and data collection.
An isometric graphic of people working on mobile game and app development - Chaos Theory | Serious Games Developer, Australia
An isometric graphic of people in a brainstorming session  - Chaos Theory | Serious Games Developer, Australia

Social Impact & Awareness

Social impact games aim to engage a player by changing their perspective or persuading them to take positive action towards social change like signing a petition, donating, and/or volunteering.

Advertising & Marketing

Advertising and marketing games are developed by or in close collaboration with a corporate entity for purposes of advertising a brand-name product.
An isometric graphic depicting various video game console devices - Chaos Theory | Serious Games Developer, Australia

What are the Types of Serious Games?

1. Process-oriented games

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.
A photograph of a person playing video games with a headset on - Chaos Theory | Serious Games Developer, Australia

Discovery Games

Serious games that focus mainly on discovery can be used to find new insights about a subject. Discovery games can be used in Research, Market Research and Team-Building.

Decision-Making Games

Games driven by decision-making seek to simplify complex decision-making processes. Streamlining these processes into a game can be used for Organisational Efficiency, Ideation and Citizen Participation.
A photograph of a woman with a virtual reality headset and controllers - Chaos Theory | Serious Games Developer, Australia
A photograph of a man presenting a study of the brain.  - Chaos Theory | Serious Games Developer, Australia

Simulation Games

Simulation allows 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 Visualisation, Analysis, or Prediction.

2. Outcome-oriented games

Outcome-oriented games compels 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.

Educational Games

Educational games are designed with educational purposes. These games use play to teach us skills and allow us to reach leaning outcomes and goals. Educational games use a framework called Game-Based Learning.
A photograph of a child playing a game on a tablet, using augmented reality to interact with items - Chaos Theory | Serious Games Developer, Australia
A photograph of a woman playing and enjoying games on her mobile phone. - Chaos Theory | Serious Games Developer, Australia

Persuasive Games

Persuasive games aim to change the participants perspective on a topic or motivate them to take immediate action. Applications of persuasive games include: Advergames and political games

Motivational Games

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.
A man on a Wahoo training bicycle using the Zwift virtual training platform.  - Chaos Theory | Serious Games Developer, Australia

Serious Games Examples

A title screen for the management simulation game Sim Refinery by Maxis Business Solutions and Chevron. A simulation game that accurately describes the complex refinery dynamics and operations.  - Chaos Theory | Serious Games Developer, Australia

Stop Disasters! by UNDRR (2007)

Industry: Education
Application: Simulation
Platforms: Web

Aimed primarily at secondary level education, Stop Disasters! is a simulation web game teaching children disasters prevention awareness. As a very real issue for the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Prevention, they wanted to highlight the work that they do to help save lives on a daily basis around the world.

Stop Disasters! teaches students how disasters affect people and how simple measures can save lives. The game balances the real-world facts with 'edutainment', and ensures the level of gameplay or fun doesn't detract from the seriousness of the subject matter. Since it's launch 14 years ago, Stop Disasters! is still available to play online.
A screenshot of EndeavourRX by Akili Interactive. The world's first medication video game to treat children between 8-12 years old for ADHD. - Chaos Theory | Serious Games Developer, Australia

EndeavourRX by Akili Interactive (2020)

Industry: Healthcare
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 focus on multiple tasks at the same time.
A title screen for Minecraft Education Edition by Microsoft. Based on the smash hit game, Minecraft EDU Edition engages students with STEM resources and immersing them in the world of Minecraft.  - Chaos Theory | Serious Games Developer, Australia

Minecraft Education Edition by Microsoft (2018)

Industry: STEM
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.
A screenshot from the medical education game Pulse!! by BreakAway Games and Dr. Claudia Johnston. Pulse!! allows medical and nursing students to apply theoretical knowledge in a simulation of clinical training. - Chaos Theory | Serious Games Developer, Australia

Pulse!! by BreakAway Games and Dr. Claudia Johnston (2006)

Industry: Healthcare
Application: Clinical Therapy
Platforms: Windows PC

Pulse!! was launched by serious game company BreakAway Games, as a virtual training tool for medical and nursing students. Players 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.

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.
A title screen from the Fortnite Creative Mode by Epic Games. Based on the popular game Fortnite Creative Mode is a new mode that allows players to create their own content in the Fortnite universe alongside their friends.  - Chaos Theory | Serious Games Developer, Australia

Fortnite Creative by Epic Games (2018)

Industry: Education
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. Games For Change and Epic Games 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”.
Screenshot of Zooniverse's Planet Hunters TESS. A citizen science platform for participants to help find new planetary bodies. - Chaos Theory | Serious Games Developer, Australia

Planet Hunters TESS by Zooniverse (2018)

Industry: Science
Application: Research and Scientific Discovery
Platform: Web

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 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.
A graphic from the mobile game for good Bleached Az by Chaos Theory and We Are Rad. Bleached Az promotes environmental conservation through irreverent and confrontational humour.  - Chaos Theory | Serious Games Developer, Australia

Bleached Az by Chaos Theory (2019)

Industry: Environmental Conservation
Application: Social Impact
Platform: iOS and Android

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 the 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.

A title screen from Pacific, a game by Game Learn, teaching and training corporate leaders in team management.  - Chaos Theory | Serious Games Developer, Australia

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.

A screenshot from Working with Water by Chaos Theory and Central Coast Council. A strategy game teaching players about water management and sustainability.  - Chaos Theory | Serious Games Developer, Australia

Working with Water by Central Coast Council and Chaos Theory (2020)

Industry: Local Council
Application: Water Management Learning
Platform: Web

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 NSW, 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.

CCC manages its own water supply for the entire region and they wanted an informative yet engaging platform to educate their community about the council's water management services.

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