What are serious games?
Serious games are video games with a focus on education or skill development over entertainment, but that doesn’t mean they’re boring. They still rely on game mechanics, fun, and often competition to engage, direct, and motivate the user.
A serious game example, The Accounted was crafted by TIQ Software with experts from Athabasca University and CPA Alberta. We developed it to help grow financial skills in high school, early university, and college students. Inspired by L.A. Noire and Ace Attorney design elements, it used story, characters, and gamification to build skills and allow users to explore the accounting profession.
We designed The Accounted as a mobile learning app. It was available for both iOS and Android until 2017, where it had over 50,000 downloads and an average rating of 4.5 out of 5 stars. You can find the full case study here.
Are all serious games simulations?
When people say, “Hey, I want to make a serious game,” often they mean a simulation. Simulators have been around for decades and many within the airline, medical, law enforcement, and military industries can cost millions if not billions of dollars.
Luckily, there are adjustable degrees within a simulation. Levels of illusion and immersion you can incorporate into game-based learning to give the appearance of reality without an expensive simulator, so while all serious games have simulations, often as scenarios, it doesn’t have to be the key component.
Serious VR and mobile
Virtual reality (VR) advancement is creating more ways to create immersive environments and scenarios for the development of these games. Mobile learning is also making strides in this area, especially within the spheres of physical health and education, by combining physical action and location with game mechanics.
Types of serious games
Serious games are more restricted in style than edutainment games, but they can still be created in different gameplay genres, making them difficult to categorize based on game type or sub-genre alone. Instead, serious games are grouped based on what they’re attempting to accomplish.
These are the games that don’t have a specific end or aim. Instead, learning comes from doing the activity itself. These are often decision-making, exploration, and discovery types of games.
The user has an objective which becomes their focus. This focus helps them work towards obtaining or mastering a skill. They can then show the skill at the desired level before the end of the game. These games often fall in the education, persuasion, or motivation areas.
Not all game-based learning is created equal. When applying design techniques to serious games, a more mixed approach can be attempted, allowing for exploration and discovery but creating focused goals and challenges along the way to foster skill development. The Accounted falls into this category as it aimed to develop specific financial skills, but was also about exploring the world of accounting to grow user interest.
7 core elements required for a successful serious game
All serious games require these 7 elements to be successful but depending on the project’s target, you may need to adjust these items. Think of it as a mixing board and each element is a level you set to create the perfect experience for your audience.
As mentioned earlier, a game can’t be serious unless its primary focus is for the user to learn, train, or get experience through direction, discovery, or a combination of both.
You don’t need to slide the learning track to the max, but it should be your highest setting in a serious game.
One of the more engaging elements of any game, commercial, indie, serious, or otherwise, is a good story. In serious games, the story can also serve as a vehicle for challenges to expand knowledge and experience and help guide users on their journey.
A high story setting would most likely include characters, dialogue, and a fully developed world, it may even contain branching user choices like a Choose Your Own Adventure or environmental storytelling objects.
A low story setting could have theme elements or environments generating a light narrative flow.
3. Game mechanics
The number of systems, their sophistication, and difficulty determines your game mechanics’ slider level.
At the low-end, points and badges motivate the user through the learning content, but at the high-end full avatar customization and systems like movement, conflict resolution (combat), turn order, and leaderboards could all come into play.
It’s also important to consider the collaboration and competition levels you want to have between different players when deciding on your game mechanics.
How close to reality is your simulation component? How “real” does it feel to your user? Often the higher the simulation level, the more “in-it” or “immersed” the user becomes and the more real the results are. The higher the slider, the closer to reality the simulation achieves through technology or techniques.
A mid-level example would be scenarios using characters and dialogue that challenge the skills or knowledge of the user.
In a serious video game, most feedback should be immediate. When users interact with the game, they need to understand their actions. They need to know if what they did was right or wrong. How detailed and personalized the feedback becomes determines the slider’s level.
High levels often include built-in analytic dashboards where users, employers, or educators, can view metrics to identify skill and knowledge gaps.
A user should be able to replay a serious game over again for practice and further skill development.
How much of it they can replay, whether the game changes or scales when they replay it, and how long they have access to the replayable components sets the level here.
The skill or subject may not be simple, but how to play the game probably should be.
A low slider here would mean the game is complex and probably requires a tutorial or even a rulebook. A high slider means a user could jump right in and start playing.
Is fun optional in serious games?
No. When developing any game-based learning, never lose sight of fun and entertainment. After all, if no one enjoys your game, then they won’t play your game.
Well, maybe they would if an employer required it, but then it would be about as effective, painful, and boring as reading a textbook on the subject.
A serious game can also exist within the larger construct of a game whose primary focus isn’t education. One example of this is Project Discovery within the massively multiplayer online game (MMO) EVE Online.
In EVE Online, citizen scientists who play the game can assess real genetic samples and astronomical data through gamified content and flag any abnormalities. Scientific researchers then investigate any flagged data further.
Project Discovery allows pilots (players) to achieve higher ranks within the game and receive unique in-game rewards. In 2020, the project aided in understanding the immune system’s response to COVID-19.
How do different industries apply serious games?
While serious games and game-based learning have been around for a while. Microsoft put out their first flight simulator in 1982 and gamification history goes back even further, It wasn’t until the late ‘90s that these games broke fully into the commercial space.
Education: Whether focusing on youth, adult, or corporate education, serious games are used by educators, learning and development professionals, and trainers to teach new concepts and skills.
Health: This industry has jumped fully on to the gamification and serious games train, from surgery simulations and annual nursing exam preparation to games that help individuals with physical therapy, training, and general healthy habit building.
Finance: Games that help build financial literacy and awareness are on the rise, right along with games that teach money management and investing.
Human Resources: Whether you’re preboarding, onboarding, offboarding, or training, HR departments use serious games to train new skills and improve old ones.
Retail: Product knowledge and seller engagement increase overall sales, and the retail industry has jumped on board with games that train their sales staff in a fun and efficient way to achieve this added productivity.
Advertising & Marketing: Often found in the service or technology sectors these games teach potential new users how a new product can make their life better.
Media: Most frequently found in news organizations, these games educate the public about different perspectives in larger world events, social issues, or conflicts.
Do serious games work?
Yes. The key areas where serious games benefit more than ‘old-school’ methods of learning are in the realm of motivation and engagement. People are more likely to learn if it’s enjoyable. When the process is painful, long, dull, or outright head-bob-snooze-inducing people find other ways to occupy their time.
Now, a poorly designed serious game can still be some of these things, but a properly designed one will have the user engaged through to completion, keeping more of the information, and completed in less time than in a classic setting.