"Serious Games," the Future of Training, Research, and Democracy, Have Arrived

The future of serious matters is the past of easy fun.

Imagine you’re a Marine captain, tasked with creating a plan of attack mission for your company. Now picture that you can send your troops out without ever physically putting them in harm’s way — setting them on a geospatial grid with evolving weather, enemy activity, and outcomes. If it sounds like a high-stakes video game, that’s because it is. It’s also the future of training, research, and a field referred to as serious games.

Serious gaming is becoming a serious business, stretching into defense training, education, medicine, and policy. Just as television began to be used as a tool for disseminating knowledge to the public in the late 1960’s, serious games are transforming video games as a new way to prepare for and observe interactions. Designed to improve teaching and learning, serious games are the inevitable product of a plugged-in population. With more than 180 million game players in the United States alone, the military, scientists, and big thinkers were bound to try to leverage one of the great technological and interactive revolutions of the past half century.

Here’s what you need to know about a field that is determined to, at minimum, change the world.

What Makes a Serious Game So Serious

Essentially serious games are exactly that, interactive applications that trigger and track human behavior. These are games not designed for entertainment purposes — though they can be unintentionally amusing — but to accurately simulate controlled situations.

“As today’s policy challenges become more complex, it has become clear that American media…are not up to task of explaining the problems underlying them or providing citizens with all the information they need,” writes Wilson Center policy expert Diane Tucker in “Gaming Our Way to a Better Future.” “In the 40 years since wicked problems were first identified, one medium has emerged as the most effect method of enabling citizens to learn about and engage with such problems…it’s the video game.”

Serious games were discussed for decades before they even became possible in practice. Engineer and educator Clark Abt argued in the 1970s that serious games could be created with an explicit educational purpose. In 2005, engineers began to push the idea that serious games could educate while also training, or even changing, behavior. Today, we can play a serious game by throwing on a VR headset.

The goal for serious games designers is to keep the game holistic and with an accessible interface. In essence, this method of testing might be deemed an extreme reaction to self-reportage. And, when it works, meaningful gamification offers something way better than multiple choices. You can see that evidence in the increasing amount of attention it’s getting: In 2004, the Games for Change attracted 35 attendees. By 2012, more than 800 people showed up and another 11,000 watched from a live-stream.

A attendee at the 2016 Games and Media Summit.

What Serious Games Are Publicly Available?

The short answer is that serious games can be applied to any sector. If it’s a subject — whether it’s tax fraud or microbiology — you can make a game out of it. The areas where serious games have been most commonly applied to so far are: business, health, defense and military strategy, education, and public policy. These games are developed by a variety of actors, whether it’s MIT’s Game Lab or IBM.

In the field of medicine, serious games have been designed to help doctors train in cardiology, surgery, and diagnostic decision-making while first aid serious games help the everyday person who needs to refresh their CPR skills while not actually being in an emergency position. Studies have demonstrated that in a comparative three months, playing serious games is actually a better way for new doctors to train than more traditional learning techniques. They are able to reduce medical errors while also reducing healthcare costs.

A scene from the serious game "Killer Flu."

Several governments have begun to invest in serious games, seeing them as an effective way to push their own policy initiatives. The Australian government designed a game to help people learn about their rights as a consumer, while Canada uses serious games to train its Royal Canadian Air Force and has instructed its in-house think tank, Horizons, to figure out how to apply serious games to emerging policy challenges. In the United States, the Obama administration has instructed federal agencies to use video games to train staff and engage with citizens about policy issues. This inspired the Wilson Center to design its own game, Budget Hero, created to see if people could balance a budget better than politicians.

A scene from "At Risk", a serious game designed to help college staff identify students in mental distress.

What’s the Next Big Step?

In part, it’s being taken seriously. While generally people like games, it doesn’t mean they trust a game to actually help with something somber, like a mental health issue. Ivan Boo, a chairperson with the Serious Games Association told Today that in Singapore, where he works, getting serious games to have traction has been a slow process.

“People think [serious games] are just for young people to play for fun…no one here really knows that they can be used for other purposes,” Boo told Today.

This subsequently affects how often they’ve been studied (not enough) and how they are given to the average consumer (with too many limitations). Too many policy makers are looking into what sort of games they could make, without actually investing into the development and sharing of the game.

That’s important because no other tool out there seems to be so influential to such a diverse range of people than serious games. Ten years from now we may be asked to play a game designed to solve our country’s problems before we’re asked to vote on them.