What are serious games?

Serious games are games that have another purpose besides entertainment. They are used to promote learning and behavior change. Serious gaming is used in various areas such as education, healthcare, marketing and other businesses and industries. The power of serious games is that they are entertaining, engaging and immersive. Serious games combine learning strategies, knowledge and structures, and game elements to teach specific skills, knowledge and attitudes.They are designed to solve problems in several areas and involve challenges and rewards, using the entertainment and engagement components provided when the user is playing games.

Where are serious games used

Serious games are used in a lot of different areas since they can be applied to a broad range of problems and challenges. A few areas where we see serious games more than in other areas are:

  • Education: Games are used to teach specific subjects through gamified exercises and simulations. This way, students can learn math or learn a new language for example. This is one of the most well-known applications of serious games, also known as educational games.
  • Healthcare: Games are also used in rehabilitation by translating exercises to actions in the game. Another use in healthcare is to train medical procedures in a simulated environment.
  • Training and consultancy: More and more consultancy agencies use serious games to explain and train teamwork and social and logistic dynamics within businesses.

These are just a few areas where serious games are used. Additionally, they are also used in the military for training purpose, in marketing to acquire and retain customers, by governments to create social awareness and for several research purposes. We are just starting to discover the potential of games with a purpose and more areas will be added to this list.

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What are the advantages of serious games?

So why are more and more companies using games for a serious goal? What’s wrong with a good old book or e-learning module? There’s nothing wrong with the old methods, but games give us a new tool to transfer information and knowledge. And it is effective as a tool because of the following reasons:

  1. Higher engagement and immersion: Because of the way how games are designed, they always motivate the player to keep on playing by using rewards, story progression or other feedback systems. Add a beautiful environment to this for complete immersion in the subject matter.
  2. A safe space to experiment: In the real world your actions have consequences, sometimes this can lead to damaged material or hurt feelings. Games create a safe, virtual environment where players can experiment to their hearts extend without having to worry about damage.
  3. Positive emotions improve learning: It’s fun! Studies have shown that students who use games to learn, experience more positive emotions. This leads to an improved learning experience when compared to traditional and video learning methods.

How do serious games work?

So how does it work? Why are people more engaged when they are playing a game? And how does this improve learning? Below are four core elements that you can find in most games. These elements contribute to both the entertainment value and the effectiveness of its serious purpose.

Interactivity: gameplay

At the core of all games is the ‘gameplay’. This can be described as the decisions and actions a player has to take to overcome challenges. For example in ‘Mario’, the player has to learn how to control Mario to jump over tortoises and gaps to reach the end of the level. The interactive element of games is what makes it fun.

Contrary to books, films or other one-way learning experiences, in games the player can actually interact with the subject matter. This allows them to experiment and play with different outcomes of their actions. This is the very nature of how humans learn. Kids learn by interacting and experimenting with the objects around them, sometimes resulting in an injury from a hot stove or bruises from falling down the stairs. Games allow players to experiment with real life situations without the dangers, consequences or material damage of the real world.

The metaphor: story and setting

Explaining divisions is always more fun when it involves pie or pizza. A metaphor can help visualize complex subjects. Games are also using metaphors to give purpose to their gameplay. A context for the actions and decisions a player has to take. The story and setting of a game are also very powerful tools to create an immersive experience for the player. Players are more involved with the characters in a game and what happens to them when they care for them. Usually, there’s also a vast and beautiful world to explore. This appeals to our basic motivation to explore and gain new experiences.

So besides using metaphors to explain complex subjects, the story and setting of a game greatly increase engagement, immersion and retention of players.

Progression and feedback: challenges and rewards

An important aspect of learning is that the posed challenge matches the current skill level of the student. If an 8 year old has to learn advanced mathematics, they will not have the required knowledge to do so and lose motivation very quickly. Games use a lot of different progression systems to be able to engage and retain players from all skill levels. Most games have a difficulty setting for example. Some games even adapt the difficulty automatically to the player.

Besides matching the challenge with the skill level, games are also very rewarding. When a player conquers a certain challenge, this triggers a release of endorphins which makes the player feel better about themselves. Players will want to keep on playing to keep the endorphins flowing. Did you ever get an endorphin rush from learning the Pythagoras theorem?

Social aspect: multiplayer

Learning in groups is more effective than learning alone (reference). Multiplayer games are games that you play with other people, online or on the couch next to each other. Being able to play or compete with other players is one of the motivations for people to play and continue playing games. The interaction creates unpredictable situations which in turn can create interesting challenges or funny situations. Being able to compete or cooperate with other players, improves both learning and engagement.

Serious games examples

Serious games have been applied to several areas with a very successful outcome. Here are some interesting cases that show the working and effectiveness of serious gaming:

  • Sea Hero Quest – A game that uses a game to collect data to detect dementia at an early stage. The data that would normally take 176 centuries to collect, was collected in a few months through this game.
  • Assassin’s Creed: Origins Discovery Tour – Although the title suggests otherwise, this special game mode of an existing entertainment game, focuses completely on exploring ancient Egypt. It is a virtual museum. Unique to this example is that it is an addition to an entertainment title, making it accessible for a very large audience.
  • Underground (disclaimer: we developed this game) – One of the first publicly available games which trains surgical procedures with a custom made game controller. This controller simulates the movement of expensive hardware, making it an affordable and effective training tool.

These are just a few examples of serious games. What defines these examples is that they all have a very strong entertaining component as well as a serious purpose. The more entertaining a serious game is, the more effective it is as a solution to train, teach or in any other way reach its goal.

Learn more about serious games

Now that you have a basic understanding of what serious games are and what they can be used for, you might be interested in more information on the subject. There has been a lot of research on using games for a purpose other than entertainment. You can check out the search results in google scholar

Closely related to serious games are gamification, game based learning, applied games and a range of other terms to describe similar practices. If you want to know the differences between all these terms, read our article on ‘serious games terminology’. If you want to know more about gamification in particular, read our article on ‘Gamification

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