Getting Serious with Games


Games are fun. And games are big business. With more than $91B[1] in global consumer spending in 2016, more people are playing more games across more genres than ever before. Players are increasingly choosing mobile game experiences above more traditional PC and console games.

Yet despite the massive year-over-year growth of the gaming industry, most people are unaware of the reach and impact games are having beyond entertainment.


Games aren't just for teenage boys to waste time on diversions that isolate them from the "real world," according to the Entertainment Software Association’s (ESA) 2017 annual report[2], the average age of a gamer is currently 35 years old and women make up 41% of gamers.

After decades of scholarly research and countless applications across every industry and demographic, we now better understand what games are, who plays them, and how gaming impacts players, our communities and larger society.

The most popular forms of games today are across three primary genres – shooters, action, and casual games. However, serious games have emerged as a force for driving social and behavioral change, healthcare and fitness, advertisement and corporate loyalty, education, training and assessment, problem solving and research.


Screenshots of games developed by Breakaway Games with partners such as the Childrens Hospital Los Angeles (Game: Pediatric Vital Signs),  Cardinal Glennon Childrens Hospital  (Game: PediatricSim), and University of Southern California (Game: Standard Patient Studio) © BreakAway Games, 2017.   

The serious use of games goes back centuries with the modern-day application often credited to the early days of the Serious Games Initiative in 2002 led by Ben Sawyer and David Rejeski. Since then, the serious games industry has addressed diverse needs and outcomes.

To explore the breadth of serious games, consider the applications of games for health. Games are being used to train medical and allied health professionals, as part of professional credentialing systems, to motivate people to exercise, by clinicians to monitor patient behaviors, in physical and psychological therapy, and even to train the muscle movements necessary to successfully utilize a prosthetic limb.

The great diversity of applications within this one market illustrates the wide influence of serious games; however, to meet the multitude of end-user needs, the industry has bifurcated into several subset communities and markets. This separation has created confusion around key terms and concepts even within the serious game and gamification communities.

The simplest definition of serious games is the use of games to achieve outcomes beyond entertainment. But what makes something a serious game, and not some other form of interactive experience?

Generally, serious games offer new play-based experiences that utilize a combination of entertainment game elements including: a game world, characters, story, mechanics, rules, challenges and risks, progressive levels, collaboration or competition, simulations, scoring systems, and a direct understanding of consequences tied to action focused on a serious application. Successful serious games can evoke intrinsic motivation in the player as he or she progresses through the game in a flow state. Contrast this with gamification, where game mechanics are attached to desired non-game activities and behaviors to extrinsically motivate desired performance outcomes.

The biggest difference between serious games and gamification is that the former relies upon creating a new experience within a game world that serves as the setting for meaningful play while gamification typically doesn’t alter the activities being performed but rather motivates the player through application of external rewards tied to desired outcomes.

When we leverage games for serious purposes, we need to remember that games are not one genre fits all. Games offer many benefits including creating enhanced engagement with an organization or content, allowing lower overhead simulation of complex and advanced concepts, bringing a community of people together for a common cause, inspiring people to achieve fitness goals, improving medical outcomes, affording more engaging learning and training experiences, and crowd-sourcing solutions to complex problems.

Each of these real world challenges draws upon different elements, genres, and styles of gameplay or gamification to achieve their serious objectives. Professionals trained in the intricacies of game thinking, design, and engagement must drive the application of these specialized game mechanics. And those professionals need support of the research community. Studies into the cognitive science and neuroscience behind how games affect players, as well as outcomes of existing serious game and gamification programs, will contribute greatly to the future success of serious games.

Games are part of our cultures and our lives. Serious games have the power to shape our world and as designers, researchers, or players, we all have an important role to play. I look forward to expanding the conversation on the diverse application of games for serious purposes. Join me at the OSTA ARIT 2017 program on Gamification and Serious Games in Austin, TX October 6-8.

USC Standard Patient studio developed for the University of Southern California by BreakAway Games. © BreakAway Games, 2017.   



Jenn McNamara, Vice President of Serious Games at BreakAway Games, is a recognized global leader in the Serious Games industry. She is also an adjunct professor of learning game design at both the NYU Tandon School of Engineering and Harrisburg University. McNamara spent her early career working with advanced technologies focused on human machine interactions to improve the way we work, learn, and live. She's researched topics ranging from artificial intelligence and cognitive agent driven decision support and training systems through early augmented cognition applications to more traditional modeling and simulation projects. McNamara has focused the last 15 years on the use of games for serious purposes.



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Thursday, 14 November 2019