Ten Myths About Serious Games

The serious games field is rife with misconceptions because it encompasses so much. To help spread the truth about serious games, let’s debunk 10 of the biggest myths about the genre.

The Game Industry Doesn’t Work On Serious Games
New fields always over-emphasize startups. The casual and mobile game sectors are still peppered with new companies. Serious games are no different, but the genre isn’t bereft of major industry players. Obviously, games like Brain Age spring to mind. But beneath the surface, Square-Enix has joined with a leading Japanese textbook publisher to make teaching games, EA has licensed the Madden franchise to a coaching software company, Konami has partnered with West Virginia to rollout a DDR-based exercise program. It’s not a very big leap to say every major development shop will have at least one serious game under its belt in the near future.

Serious Games are for Learning and Training
The most notorious myth is the notion that serious games are edutainment repackaged under a different moniker. Nothing could be further from the truth. A rich set of games based on goals other than education, including health-related therapies, exercise, public opinion research and economic studies, have enjoyed success. In fact, making a game that teaches a specific lesson is one of the hardest design goals to accomplish. Serious games that act more like utilities and exist beyond education offer a lot of promise for the field’s future.


Serious Games Aren’t Fun
This is an axiom perpetuated by many developers and non-developers. Talk about needing to reset expectations. Sure, there are times when serious games lack the joy of play that at times disproportionately drives commercial games, but people absorb media for many different reasons, only one of which is for fun. Any number of necessities and other motivational purposes also come into play. To think fun is the only reason users play games isn’t giving people much credit. If anything, serious games are more than fun.

Serious Games Are Always Serious
The term “serious” isn’t a grammatical modifier related to a serious game’s content. What makes a game a serious game is the designers’ choice to make their game more than entertaining to the player. For instance, Catch the Sperm, created for the Swiss AIDS Federation, is a public service advergame. Its purpose is to educate people about the need to engage in safe sex practices. This game, which takes place inside a vagina and features gameplay where you shoot condoms at oncoming viruses and sperm, is definitely funny, but the message is serious. Silly game, serious purpose.

Serious Games Aren’t Commercially Successful
Earlier in 2007, Bing Gordon, EA’s Chief Creative Officer, referring to recent game school graduates said: “About a third want to do games for a public purpose, which leads me to believe that serious games are going to become really important, but the thing is that nobody knows how to monetize them.” In fairness to Gordon, he may be specifically referring to a certain sub-section of serious games focused on social issues. Monetizing those games is beyond tough, and in most cases I don’t think the author or sponsor’s intent is to make money on them.

However, on a broader level, there is a general perception that serious games can’t be commercially successful. But the serious games genre makes $100 million annually; small, compared to the global games business, but growing quickly. Several commercial games that look at health issues are already prominent sellers, and studios like High Voltage, Blitz Games and Totally Games are enjoying meaningful revenues in the industry.

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Games Are Young Media, So Serious Games Are For Young People
Organizations that commission serious games frequently say games are a great way to reach young people. It can become a mantra at times. The fact is, for all the amazing growth rates, many young people don’t play games regularly. Even the most popular games’ audiences top out at roughly the size of a basic cable program’s fan base.

And the gaming demographic is getting older every year. Considering that serious games often cover sophisticated issues and practices, to say it’s a genre for children is just flat-out wrong.

There Is No Proof That Games Affect Anyone
One of the most popular attacks on serious games is no one can agree on what effect games have on people. There are very few studies that have found games can reliably teach. But that doesn’t mean games don’t affect people. In the health arena, there are several strong studies that show games can be beneficial to the sick. And in cases involving learning, what results exist show that well-made projects do, at least, aid certain types of learners. We definitely need to see more studies, but the cupboard isn’t bare.

Game Developers Don’t Want to Work on Serious Games; Serious Games Are an Academic Pursuit
Most developers want to work on their game – be it AAA, casual, mobile or serious. But serious games are largely perceived to be an academic pursuit. Academia does have a prominent role in serious games, but professional game developers pursue most of the genre’s projects. Increasingly, these developers also operate in the mainstream commercial game market. As more customers require the polish AAA games provide, serious game projects will gradually improve their presentation across the board, which will draw in more financially driven development studios and designers.


Serious Games Are Games For Good
Too often, serious games are interpreted by people outside the industry as some sort of effort to balance out the industry’s ills, as if there is some industry-wide social responsibility campaign. So far, with rare exception, (like Konami translating Food Force into Japanese), the industry’s social responsibility hasn’t manifested itself in the form of serious games. But that’s good. Serious games don’t exist – nor should they – as some sort of backhanded apology for the game industry.

Another problem with this particular myth is the genre includes games created with a distinctly political agenda. Serious games are a medium; what passes through them is up to each creator.

Serious Games Are Dominated by the U.S. Military
Early on in the development of the Serious Games Summit, we made a conscious effort ensure a balance between what the military and non-governmental organizations were doing with games. As it turns out, there was never a problem.

While the military is a major player in the field, it’s definitely not the only big spender. Healthcare professionals, corporate trainers and huge teaching organizations are all getting into the business, consistently spreading its scope. In fact, in terms of revenue, health and healthcare will likely dominate the field within a few years.

And Then There Were None
Irwin Edman said, “It is a myth, not a mandate, a fable not a logic and symbol rather than a reason by which men are moved.” That’s no joke. Keep perpetuating anything, and eventually it’ll become canon. The key is to question and investigate yourself the myths you encounter daily, especially in a new field like serious games.

Ben Sawyer is co-founder of Digitalmill, a Portland, Maine design and consulting company specializing in innovative applications of games and game technologies. He is the co-founder of the Serious Games Initiative, and the Games for Health Project.

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