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Developers get serious: Expanding how video games are used

Posted by Timothy Loew  January 16, 2014 09:55 AM

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By Chris Parsons, product manager, Muzzy Lane Software

More people in more places are playing games created for serious purposes. These non-entertainment types of games are loosely categorized as “serious games.” They have actually been around for some time, mainly limited to specific business or military simulations, or education titles for children. However, within the last few years serious games have gone mainstream and are being used ever more frequently for business training, as teaching tools in schools and universities, and now in healthcare.

Some serious games use the simplest of gameplay elements while others are as deep and complex as any entertainment game. Meanwhile, more serious elements are appearing in entertainment titles. This trend - blurred lines between game-based learning and entertainment games - is accelerating. It is having a growing impact on how we play and on how we learn.

One place where you can spot this trend is at one of gaming’s premier events: Penny Arcade Expo (PAX). In the past year, I’ve hosted serious games panels at PAX East in Boston and at PAX Prime in Seattle. In Boston, we explored the differences between actual serious games and “gamification.” In Seattle, we asked whether these games are actually fun or not. Each panel attracted a great crowd. Interest was so high that the panelists answered questions for more than an hour after each session. These questions came from teachers, but also from gamers - plus engineers and developers looking at future game career possibilities.

This level of interest is not just apparent at PAX. This past September at the Boston Festival of Indie Games our booth was jammed. Last year’s MassDiGI Game Challenge included a competition track for serious games (and will again this year, too).

The term “serious games” can often read like an oxymoron. But in one respect, games are no different than any hobby done for fun. And it’s pretty clear to both observers and participants that people sure do take their hobbies seriously! We invest a lot of time and money so we can have fun indulging in our hobbies, be it games, golf, fishing, or fantasy football. The difference in serious games is that they have learning objectives at their core. But, they absolutely will not succeed in having players achieve those objectives if they are not engaging. Serious games have to be fun.

Meanwhile “games for fun” and entertainment are getting increasingly more serious. Again, this is “Serious” with a capital “S”, not grim soldier heroes in a shooter game like “Call of Duty” or the hardened protagonists of “Grand Theft Auto”. In this case, serious means there is some kind of informal or even formal learning going on. Just look at two recent best-sellers on Steam (the leading digital game distribution site): “Papers, Please”, where you play a border guard checking travel documents for a repressive regime, or “Game Dev Tycoon” which lets you replay the history of the video game as a developer seeking to dominate the industry.

Sure, these games are fun, but they also have a thought-provoking and serious aspect to them. They may not be taught in school, but you learn a lot of operations management principles while you become a “Game Dev Tycoon”. “Papers, Please” gives you insight into and empathy for people living under dictatorships where a single wrong decision can have dire results.

If we examine games across the spectrum from the totally serious such as a realistic flight simulator to the totally fun such as, for example, “Mario Kart,” we see one thing that is clearly present in all of them. Engagement. A great game holds our attention and motivates us to succeed by completing a series of objectives.

Is it any wonder why that would be attractive to educators? To employers training a sales team? To health professionals seeking coping tools for patients who are leaving their care?

Perhaps the fact that gamers take their fun seriously is why game-based learning is taking off so quickly. Our “Government in Action” game, which lets college students studying political science play a member of the U.S. Congress, is an example of these lines blurring, but from the opposite angle. Created as part of a series for McGraw-Hill Education, it is clearly designed as a serious game and is currently being used in classrooms. Yet the game was compared to Netflix’ “House of Cards” in Forbes and we receive frequent requests to release a version to the commercial market.

Should that release happen would it still be a serious game? It is getting a lot harder to tell. It may be that even the term “serious game” is outgrowing its original definition. But one thing is for certain; as more games appear in schools, businesses and elsewhere, we’ll be more engaged in what we are learning and doing, and we’ll be having more fun. Serious fun.

Chris Parsons is product manager for Muzzy Lane Software, an edtech company in Newburyport, MA that creates games for business, education, healthcare and commercial markets.

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The State of Play blog, organized by MassDiGI, features posts by digital and video game industry insiders writing about creativity, innovation, research, and development in the Massachusetts digital entertainment and apps sectors. MassDiGI, based at Becker College, is a statewide center for academic cooperation, entrepreneurship, and economic development across the local games ecosystem. Follow along @Mass_DiGI.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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MassDiGI 8-24 287w872.jpgThe State of Play, organized by MassDiGI, features stories by digital and video game developers and business insiders. Follow along @mass_digi.

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