If “serious game” sounds like a bit of an oxymoron to you, you’re not using your imagination to its fullest potential. Don’t worry, though – there’s probably a serious game out there that can help you, just as they’re already helping teach people things like flying planes and cutting better deals.
A serious game is essentially a subset of education games that tries to emulate a real-world task or concept in a video-game format, essentially giving us a fun, low-consequence way to gain experience.
Much like the concept of gamification (think Duolingo, layering game mechanics over a task), serious games are based on the idea that we can hack our brains into rewarding us for things that we would otherwise find boring, as well as transferring video-game skills to real life by replicating some elements of how the skill would be applied in the real world.
They are already being used for education, onboarding, job training, journalism, policy communication, and even social change, and as artificial intelligence and virtual reality continue to improve, they’re going to become even more common and sophisticated. In a few years (or even now!) you may well find your next educational or job-training experience involving some kind of a computer game.
Serious games in school
Googling “math games” will bring up an overwhelming list of low-rent flash games that kids these days probably just won’t find entertaining. It doesn’t have to be this way, though. Companies like DragonBox, Prodigy, BrainQuake, The MIT Education Arcade, and a wide range of other companies are producing games that teach players mathematical concepts, scientific theories, rhetorical devices, computer languages, financial strategies, history, language, and more.
If you remember “educational games” of yore, this will not sound like very much has changed, but they’re making a big leap from past educational game design, which generally involved gamification (solve this math problem to run faster!) rather than actually designing a game that weaves the concepts into its mechanics.
Serious games for job training
You’ve probably heard of flight simulators; they’re an essential part of any pilot’s training. But why stop there? If they work for pilots, serious games might also work for professionals in other fields, right? That’s exactly the theory behind one of the biggest markets for serious games today: human capital improvement.
Companies like Gamelearn, QStream, and The Learning Arcade (among many others) produce on-the-job training games, many of which can be customized to the needs of a specific business. The simpler games help employees remember important details through gamification, while the more involved ones are full-fledged games that guide employees through virtual scenarios that improve their negotiation, sales, communication, leadership, and other professional skills. This also translates well to hard skills, such as helping employees learn how to analyze scientific data or operate complex machinery.
Experience is a vital part of improving a skill, and a well-designed game that mimics real life can actually result in quite a bit of skill transfer at a relatively low cost. This is especially the case in something with high stakes, like medicine, which has been the subject of quite a few serious training games that help with everything from emergency room management to diagnosis and surgery. Even militaries, which already have an affinity for simulations, are using serious games for training.
Newsgames, policy education, and social change
If you’re even a little bit of a news junkie, you’ve probably already encountered a simple game that illustrates a news story, an important policy, or a social issue. Pictures aren’t really worth a thousand words, but games certainly might be. Popular news games like Darfur is Dying and Peacemaker paved the way for a whole host of others, from games that show you what it’s like to be an Uber driver (spoiler alert: making your mortgage payment is hard) to games that put you in charge of a fake news organization, you have a good idea of how these things actually work. Whether they’re educating you about water policy or putting you in someone else’s shoes, though, they’re generally oriented towards informing and persuading.
Many of these games tend to be developed by independent studios or media outlets, though there are some bigger organizations behind them as well, like Tiltfactor Laboratory and various branches of the U.S government, including, oddly enough, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which publishes a lot of sustainability-oriented games.
Where can I find serious games?
A lot of serious games are used for corporate or government training, and these tend not to be available to the general public (at least not for free), so you may not be able to learn how to operate surface-to-air missiles or triage an ER in your spare time. The educational and news-oriented games, though, are often available for free or a small price. If you’re interested, check out:
- Tiltfactor Laboratories (games for social change)
- DragonBox (math games)
- Geneva Water Hub (hydropolitics games)
- MIT Education Arcade (an ever-changing collection of educational games)
- The NOAA (US government games about water and the environment)
- The Nobel Prize Website
- Gamelearn (corporate skill-building, free demos only)
- Ludwig (physics game)
- Darfur is Dying (newsgame about Darfur)
- Re-mission (an action game about fighting cancer)
- PeaceMaker (education game about the Israel-Palestine conflict)
- Socrates Jones (education game about moral philosophy)
- The Amazon Race (newsgame about working at Amazon)
- Time For Payback (newsgame about student loans)
- Spent (newsgame about financial difficulty)
- Fake It to Make It (game about fake news)
- Bad News (another game about fake news)
- Syrian Journey (newsgame about the Syrian refugee crisis)
- #Hacked (newsgame about cyber-warfare in Syria)
- Wolf Quest (educational game about wolves)
- College Scholarship Tycoon (newsgame about college scholarships)
Will I be gaming my way to success?
Serious games as real-world training tools are still mostly in the testing phase. You’re not going to go from band-aids to brain surgery by just leveling up enough in a simulator, and you probably never will. Serious games, and games in general, are mostly good for putting theory into practice, but no matter how realistic they get, games probably won’t replace the need to occasionally read a book, write a paper, or grind out some math problems. Onboarding new employees using simulated work tasks, though? That’s probably going to be mostly games at some point in the future.