Welcome to another blog version of the Game for Thought series (GFT), this is a written recap of Howest DAE’s livestream series that tackles ethically-relevant topics in the games industry and explores the impact & implications of industry developments.
Reason enough for us, here at FLEGA, to communicate these topics and challenges as widely as possible. In this blog recap of the livestream, we’ll break down the most important talking points of the panel, but for those who prefer to watch the entire video, you can find it below.
In this Game For Thought panel, we talk all about the topic of serious games. Games are not just for “fun” but they bring culture and are an ART form. They have the power to motivate meaningful change in the most unique ways.
How would you define a serious game?
Elizabeth Newbury: Serious games are games that go beyond entertainment, so the title of this panel is aptly named. There are two categories for me, the first one would be games that are designed from the start to be educative. Math Blaster is an example from my childhood that helped kids with math. The second category are often commercial games that can be used in the classroom, but that weren’t designed for it. Minecraft had kids flocking to it, so teachers started looking into how they could incorporate this into their lessons. Minecraft even had an educational edition release afterward, so it became a hybrid of the two. But you also have games like EVE online that introduced quests that help with human research, even COVID research recently.
Glenn Gillis: I’d like to add that we all love games because they are voluntary in their nature. You play them because you want to play them. Information is retained better that way and it’s a good reason to consider bringing playfulness back into the learning process. This is what sits at the heart of the impact games can have, it can trigger a love of learning and cause a behaviour change.
What is the difference in the process of making a serious game?
Sabiha Ghellal: First, I’d like to share that I use a lot of publications from fellow panellist Eric Zimmerman to teach. There is a lot of info there on the study of gamedesign and playfulness. When we tackle a game in class, we always start with the deconstruction to better understand it and then we produce a game design idea. Two of my students are now working on a turn-based strategy game involving wetlands, and for this they talked to an expert to better understand the facts that need to be present in their game. They are even considering taking real weather data and incorporating it into the game. But they should always keep in mind that it needs to remain fun, as that is the very reason for a game to exist. Creating a serious game that is not fun to play makes no sense. That’s why we always end with a player-centric evaluation.
Eric Zimmerman: It’s a complicated question. My opinion overlaps a lot with what has been said before. I was trained as an artist and my parents were art educators. Interestingly, art teachers will not expect you to look at a painting in a museum and for it to trigger a behavioural change. There is no question of how the art will insert information into the audience effectively. Instead, art educators see it as context for an exchange of ideas or a discussion.
In games, the context can also be just as important. Who is the player, why are they playing, and who are the other people involved? What is the intention? Do you want to change the player’s mind? Do you want to inform them of an important issue or impact them emotionally? It’s vital to keep in mind what you want people to carry away from it and this can decide if a game can be considered a serious game or not.
Personally, I’m very skeptical of gamification and using games as instruments. I wouldn’t just introduce the system of points and rewards to an office or a classroom. You can’t just strip those elements from games or you’d leave the very soul of what makes something a game behind.
Sabiha Ghella: I’d like to add to this that Duolingo has managed to make sense of gamification from my point of view. They took the aesthetics and the flow from games and succeeded in really making it fun to learn.
Eric Zimmerman: Indeed. Games imply a model of what it means to be human by virtue of their design. When you’re making a game, you’re implying a social, cognitive or even a political model because you’re creating it for an audience. Where gamification goes wrong, is if it has the behaviourist “rat in a cage” model and disregards what it means to be human. And Duolingo manages to thread that needle. It seems to have the player’s best interests at heart.
How does culture impact the adoption of serious games?
Glenn Gillis: It’s really important that people can see themselves in those games. Africa isn’t a single country, it’s 54 countries and made up of many regions and cultures. A lot has been stripped because of colonialism, but it’s the sense of identity and purpose that remains the highest order of what we’re trying to put into all forms of art. You can even tell some of these things from the elements that aren’t as visible. In Africa, we still struggle with low-bandwidth environments and literacy issues. It’s a cultural and economic reality and one that even leads to incredible innovation.
It’s also important what people do, not only what they know. If we’re thinking about a world in crisis and how we can keep it sustainable, we’ll need people to act. We need to actively help shape that future.
Elizabeth Newbury: One of the questions I often get is “Why games?” because they are seen as frivolous or a waste of time. There is an entire connotation of gaming culture. In the governmental and political circles I interact with, there is even hesitation to admit that they are playing games like Wordle.
And this doesn’t just happen in the US. I was recently demoing The Plastic Pipeline in Vietnam, a game about single-use plastics and it was to a group of volunteers who came to playtest this game and even when I asked them, there was hesitance to admit they play games. People seem to fail to understand that “play” is very much how we as people learn. And how games help us engage and socialize in a lot of different ways.
It’s something that you won’t have to defend or explain to a group of gamers, but still very much a struggle outside of the gaming culture.
How do you navigate talking to people who don’t understand the value of games and the positive things they can do?
Elizabeth Newbury: Everyone has played a game at some point in their life. Start from that common ground. I’m lucky that others have trailblazed the idea that we can use games and that they can be leveraged for a positive impact. But when you’re designing games, it’s important to keep in mind where your audience is starting from and what you want them to take away from it. How can you motivate your players to want to learn more? If the players can come away from the experience with newfound agency and the belief that they can become a part of the conversation on that topic, then that is considered a huge win. For example, if people play The Fiscal Ship, and afterward they feel they have learned a little more about the federal budget.
How can people from different sectors collaborate better?
Sabiha Ghella: It depends on the context and setting if it works well or not. We often collaborate with museums, and then you need to get the curators on board to actively participate, especially if the artists themselves are no longer alive. But there was one example where it worked well, with costumes of which the artist asked to never exhibit them statically. To use these in a game, was a no-brainer.
It’s also crucial to enable artists and curators to experiment with games. They need the safety to try out new things. And you need to research. For one project, I went to schools and talked to 16yo students to look at what they are playing. What interests them?
It’s also important to not stereotype. I believe that’s one of the dangers of going into an era where Artificial Intelligence is used to develop games. Pattern-recognizing machines tend to stereotype and then you risk creating products in which no one can identify themselves. It’s an upcoming issue we not only need to address as game designers but also as a society.
Elizabeth Newbury: It’s important to talk to people. If you’re going to create a game that highlights a cultural group, or if you’re engaging with a particular topic like mental health or in our case, policy research, you need to incorporate the people that are involved in those conversations, as part of the design process. Some of the best games that I’ve played recently amplify marginalized voices by working very closely with those communities
If you’re going to make a game that will be used in education, then you need to talk to the teachers and potentially to their students so you are sure the design of your characters resonates with them. With the Plastic Pipeline title, it took us several rounds of revising the characters for college students.
What are your favourite serious games?
Glenn Gillis: We do a lot of work with financial institutions and we designed a tycoon game in Roblox. The mechanics needed to be good at teaching delayed gratification and resource management. And it was a huge success as kids were phoning their banks and asking how they could open a bank account. Parents loved it, and obviously, the banks were fans as well.
Eric Zimmerman: I instantly thought of my own childhood and the games that impacted me the most. From neighbourhood games like Kick the Can and Dodgeball, but also early computer games like Sim City that really let you play around with systems and learn to understand how cause and effect works. But also Dungeons & Dragons where we even learned how bell curves, probability and mathematics worked from rolling dice. But also the creative parts like building worlds and roleplaying characters.
When we’re talking about serious games, we look beyond what’s inside the game like how mechanics work and how it’s monetized, but we look at what impact it has on the outside world. Serious games are like a frame or a lens to look at the world with. It’s about shifting the emphasis for games as a form of culture that could have a powerful impact. Games are becoming the dominant form of mass culture.
Elizabeth Newbury: The game that got me through Covid is Wingspan. It was designed to help you learn about birds, of all things.
About Game For Thought
Game For Thought (GFT) is a livestream series launched by Howest – Digital Arts and Entertainment (DAE) in collaboration with local medialab Quindo and sponsored by Vlaams Audiovisueel Fonds (VAF), it tackles ethically-relevant topics in the games industry and explores the impact & implications of industry developments. Each broadcast, Allie Weis, ethics coordinator at Howest DAE, invites a selection of industry experts to discuss the topic at hand.