What's wrong with serious games?

At Game Developers Conference, serious-games proponents talk about what's wrong with the genre.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
4 min read
SAN JOSE, Calif.--So-called serious games have a serious problem.

Serious games usually have a message promoting education, science, health care or even the military. They're meant to educate people by simulating real-world events and are often created with the best of intentions.

Problem is, education, science and health care aren't exactly the stuff of exciting entertainment, let alone video games. While the military provides plenty of fodder for gamers, cosmologists like Carl Sagan or famous physicians like Jonas Salk aren't exactly the stuff of the multiverse.

So what to do about it? A Tuesday morning panel at the Serious Games Summit, an adjunct event to the Game Developers Conference here, took the question on. The panel, titled "What's wrong with serious games?" was led by Ben Sawyer, Serious Games Summit content chair, who was joined by James Gee, a professor of learning sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Henry Kelly, president of the Federation of American Scientists.

Serious games may even have their second annual standalone conference scheduled this fall. But even as the buzz around the genre grows, Sawyer said there's a major problem: A lot of people think the whole concept is a failure and a joke.

Part of that perception, Sawyer said, comes from the fact that the genre has not produced a particularly large library of finished games, or much in the way of revenue or profits. As a result, serious games are still little more than "a rounding error" to a larger game industry that is often said to be bigger than the film industry.

To Kelly, a chief problem is that much of the serious-games genre is aimed, in one way or another, at government-funded institutions such as schools or the military. But the government is often skeptical about projects that have abstract goals such as furthering education or teaching military tactics, he said.

"The (federal Office of Management and Budget) has tough managers," Kelly said, "and they want to see (concrete) results and large-scale statistical success."

Further, he said, the government currently has more than 200 separate programs aimed at spurring innovation in science, technology, education and medicine, and therefore there is significant competition for scarce resources that serious-game developers could benefit from.

"There's no tradition of research and systematic improvement in this industry."
--Henry Kelly, president, Federation of
American Scientists

Another problem, Kelly argued, is that serious-game developers have not arrived at any easily measurable standards for growth and success, and thus outside observers have a hard time judging whether projects work or not.

"There's no tradition of research and systematic improvement in this industry," Kelly said. "Everything is a cottage industry."

To Gee of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the problems facing the genre are complex and serious enough that it must grow beyond its still-nascent state quickly, or it risks collapsing altogether under the weight of unmet promise.

Part of the problem, Gee said, is that the serious-games industry has yet to seriously define itself. Therefore, he said, those in the industry must concentrate on locking down what it is about.

"We have to really confront the central questions and fight over them," Gee said, "so that there might be some central convergence."

But one thing favoring serious games is the very power of games themselves, something which can promote fundamental change.

"The power of games is that they put you inside a world," he said, "and you see that world from an inside-out perspective, and you have to solve (games') problems from that perspective."

And that dynamic is powerful, Gee suggested, because it is something common to all games and something that almost anyone evaluating the success of serious games could understand.

Gee also pointed to a lack of commitment to strong game design principles in the genre, and argued that it is not necessary, as some believe, to put huge resources into flashy graphics in order to make a successful game. Rather, he said, game play mechanics are more important, and a more efficient use of resources--and that is where the industry should concentrate as it seeks the kinds of titles that will generate widespread attention.

Of course, while games like "SWAT 4" or "Diner Dash" can teach players about special police tactics or the demands on waitresses, respectively, Gee said, he feels that the serious- games genre needs a big hit title to break through in the popular consciousness.

And once that happens, the industry will also have to struggle to prove how they promote learning, Gee said, something that the genre has yet to achieve outside its insular community.

Sawyer said he believes there are plenty of existing serious games that already are helping society, but that without good public relations, most people will never know about them.

"We shoot ourselves in the foot because we don't talk about it," Sawyer said.