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Games: SERIOUS BUSINESS

10:42 AM on 06.28.2007 // Leigh Alexander

Slate just pubbed a piece about the whole "serious games" phenomenon. If you haven't heard, the serious gaming concept refers to games whose primary purpose isn't fun.

A game that isn't fun? Good luck with that.

Seriously, though, a lot of different groups -- philanthropists, business dudes, educators and academics, for example -- see a lot of potential in the idea of using games to effectively educate audiences about SERIOUS ISSUES, communicate ideas, and promote action. 

As the Slate piece highlights, though, there're some issues with the concept; hit the jump to read more.

Socially-minded, responsible folk have sorta just now realized that games are totally awesome, and are trying to snag the medium for their own boring, boring purpose. The result? We've got a lot of people conceptualizing and making games who don't know anything about gaming, and drab educational simulators that are so serious it hurts (yes, there is a Darfur simulator). In these kinds of situations everybody loses -- gaming is uncomfortable in the upstanding, responsible monkey suit (after all, isn't half of gaming figuring out what the rules are so you can break 'em?) and the cause isn't helped by a tacky game that's just NOT FUN.

I'm gonna play Devil's advocate against the Slate piece, though -- I went to the Games for Change festival and covered it for Gamasutra earlier this month, and got to hear a lot of panels with some very smart people on both sides of the argument. You can check out my coverage if you're really interested in all the nuts-and-bolts, but the basic idea is that you can learn something from a game -- without sucking the life out of gaming.

I know my world capitals to this day because of Carmen Sandiego. Anyone else? And let's not forget Oregon Trail, the game that taught us all what dysentery is. By killing us with it. Repeatedly. What fun!

Chances are, though, the games that taught you something weren't necessarily trying to. Is it so unreasonable, for example, to posit that younger kids could incidentally get a better idea of the basic idea of financial management, or work-life balance, from playing The Sims? I mean, I learned all about government from Metal Gear. That whole thing about the Patriots? I had no idea! Seriously, though, I bet we've all got a story about how some element of a game -- let's say a real historical figure as a character -- led us to be a little more interested in a given time period, maybe look up the real-life person on Wikipedia. 

And that's really all these "serious" games are aiming to do -- they want to motivate you to do something with the concept when you're done playing. Whether it's that you're aware of a world issue that you didn't think of before, and happen to mention it to someone else in conversation, or strike out to learn more about an element from the game on your own -- if the game motivates you to think of, feel, or do something new, then it's considered a success. And games do that for us all the time already. They don't need to be all sleepy educational schlock. 

And pretty soon, socially-conscious gaming could be coming right to your living room. Microsoft teamed up with Games For Change to make the XNA Express software available to student developers, who can enter their creations in a year-long competition to see who can make the best global warming game. The winners might even make it onto Xbox Live Arcade.

None of us want to see Mr. Business Dork ruin gaming. But I think these groups can continue looking at how to use gaming to spread information or engage people on new ideas -- as long as they remember that they're games. As in, things you play. Y'know -- fun. 



Leigh Alexander,
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