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Serious game

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Serious game

A serious game or applied game is a game designed for a primary purpose other than pure entertainment. The "serious" adjective is generally prepended to refer to products used by industries like defense, education, scientific exploration, health care, emergency management, city planning, engineering, and politics.


  • Definition and scope 1
  • Overview 2
  • History 3
  • Development 4
  • Research and education 5
  • Classification 6
  • Examples 7
  • See also 8
  • References 9
  • Further reading 10

Definition and scope

Serious games are simulations of real-world events or processes designed for the purpose of solving a problem. Although serious games can be entertaining, their main purpose is to train or educate users, though it may have other purposes, such as marketing or advertisement. Serious game will sometimes deliberately sacrifice fun and entertainment in order to achieve a desired progress by the player. Serious games are not a game genre but a category of games with different purposes. This category includes some educational games and advergames, political games, or evangelical games.[1] Serious games are primarily focused on an audience outside of primary or secondary education.


The term "serious game" has been used long before the introduction of computer and electronic devices into entertainment. Clark Abt discussed the idea and used the term in his 1970 book Serious Games,[2] published by Viking Press. In that book, his references were primarily to the use of board and card games. But he gave a useful general definition which is still considered applicable in the computer age:

Reduced to its formal essence, a game is an activity among two or more independent decision-makers seeking to achieve their objectives in some limiting context. A more conventional definition would say that a game is a context with rules among adversaries trying to win objectives. We are concerned with serious games in the sense that these games have an explicit and carefully thought-out educational purpose and are not intended to be played primarily for amusement.

It is not a new idea. Military officers have been using war games in order to train strategic skills for a long time. One early example of a serious game is a 19th-century Prussian military training game called Kriegsspiel, the German name for wargame.

Mike Zyda provided an update and a logical approach to the term in his 2005 article in IEEE Computer entitled, "From Visual Simulation to Virtual Reality to Games". Zyda's definition begins with "game" and proceeds from there:

  • Game: "a physical or mental contest, played according to specific rules, with the goal of amusing or rewarding the participant."
  • Video Game: "a mental contest, played with a computer according to certain rules for amusement, recreation, or winning a stake."
  • Serious Game: "a mental contest, played with a computer in accordance with specific rules that uses entertainment to further government or corporate training, education, health, public policy, and strategic communication objectives."

Long before the term "serious game" came into wide use with the Serious Games Initiative in 2002, games were being made for non-entertainment purposes. The continued failure of the edutainment space to prove profitable, plus the growing technical abilities of games to provide realistic settings, led to a re-examination of the concept of serious games in the late 1990s. During this time, a number of scholars began to examine the utility of games for other purposes, contributed to the growing interest in applying games to new purposes. Additionally, the ability of games to contribute to training expanded at the same time with the development of multi-player gaming. In 2002, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington D.C. launched a "Serious Games Initiative" to encourage the development of games that address policy and management issues. More focused sub-groups began to appear in 2004, including Games for Change which focuses on social issues and social change, and Games for Health which addresses health care applications.

Other authors, though, (as Jeffery R. Young) consider that Serious Games didn't obtain the success that was expected, and new theories, like "Smart Gaming" have appeared to replace it.

There is no single definition of serious games, though they are generally held to be games used for training, advertising, simulation, or education. Alternate definitions include the application of games concepts, technologies and ideas to non-entertainment applications. This can also include specific hardware for video games, such as exergaming.

Serious games are aimed for a large variety of audiences, including primary or secondary education, professionals and consumers. Serious games can be of any genre, use any game technology, and be developed for any platform. Some may consider them a kind of edutainment; however, the mainstay of the community are resistant to this term.

A serious game is not a simulation alone. It may be a simulation combined with elements of game-play, specifically a chance to win. All have the look and feel of a game, a chance to win, but correspond to non-game events or processes from the real world, including business operations and military operations (even though many popular entertainment games depicted business and military operations). The games are made to provide an engaging, self-reinforcing context in which to motivate, educate and train the players. Other purposes for such games include marketing and advertisement. The largest users (unsubstantiated by business intelligence) of serious games appear to be the US government and medical professionals. Other commercial sectors are actively pursuing development of these types of tools as well.


Gaming has been used in educational circles since at least the 1900s. Use of paper-based educational games became popular in the 1960s and 1970s, but waned under the Back to Basics teaching movement.[3] (The Back to Basics teaching movement is a change in teaching style that started in the 1970s when students were scoring poorly on standardized tests and exploring too many electives. This movement wanted to focus students on reading, writing and arithmetic and intensify the curriculum.[4]) With the proliferation of computers in the 1980s, the use of educational games in the classroom became popular with titles that included Oregon Trail, Math Blaster, and Number Munchers. Though these games were popular among teachers and students, they were also criticized due to the fact that they did not provide the player with new kinds of learning, and instead provided a "slightly easier-to-swallow version of drill-and-practice" learning.[5]

In the 1990s, newer games such as The Incredible Machine and the Dr. Brain series were introduced to challenge kids to think in new ways, apply their current skills, and learn new ones, but these games were unpopular among teachers because it was difficult to map these newer games to their curriculum, especially in a high school setting where in-class time is at a premium. The 1990s also saw the Internet being introduced to schools, which with limited computer resources took precedence over playing games.[5]

The early 2000s saw a surge in different types of educational games, especially those designed for the younger learner. Many of these games were not computer-based but took on the model of other traditional gaming system both in the console and hand-held format. In 1999, LeapFrog Enterprises introduced the LeapPad, which combined an interactive book with a cartridge and allowed kids to play games and interact with a paper-based book. Based on the popularity of traditional hand-held gaming systems like Nintendo's Game Boy, they also introduced their hand-held gaming system called the Leapster in 2003. This system was cartridge-based and integrated arcade–style games with educational content.[6]

In 2001, Henry Jenkins, Director of Comparative Media Studies and Randy Hinrichs, Group Research Manager for Learning Science and Technology group were co-principal investigators working on a project known as Games-to-Teach. Games-to-Teach inspired the serious gaming initiatives that followed. The partnership between MIT and Microsoft developed conceptual prototypes for interactive serious gaming, with Kurt Squire, now professor at University of Wisconsin as principal PhD candidate working on the project. The MIT iCampus project lasted for six years. During this time, serious games were created with several faculty members using role playing techniques, mobile technologies, physics based racing games to teach physics, and other experiences. Topics included media in science, engineering education, education in media, complex system dynamics, and collaboration. Hephaestus was a massively multiplayer Xbox online mechanical engineering game. Environmental detectives used handheld PCs to investigate health problems in the city of Boston. Biohazard was codeveloped with Carnegie Mellon University, MIT and Microsoft Research. Players worked collaboratively with first responders to a chemical attack in a subway. This was a multiplayer RPG designed for the PC/Xbox in which sources of epidemic outbreaks were investigated to determine how to control crowds and deliver decontamination treatments and manage resources efficiently. Hinrichs began the award winning company to build serious games in health, business, education and created the first Certificate in Virtual Worlds at the University of Washington to build curriculum around how to engage avatars in serious game environments. Henry Jenkins joined USC as Professor of Communication, Journalism, Cinematic Arts and Education. Jenkins has played a significant role in demonstrating the importance of new media technologies in educational settings.

In 2002 another movement had started outside of formal educational sector that was coined as the "serious game movement," which originated from the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, where David Rejecsk and Ben Sawyer started the initiative. The primary consumer and producer of serious games is the United States Military, which needs to prepare their personnel for enter a variety of environments, cultures, and situations. They need to understand their surroundings, be able to communicate, use new technologies and quickly make decisions.[5] The first serious game is often considered to be Army Battlezone, an abortive project headed by Atari in 1980, designed to use the Battlezone tank game for military training.[7] Two other well known serious games that were commissioned by the Army are America's Army (2002) and Full Spectrum Warrior (2004).

Outside of the government, there is substantial interest in serious games for formal education, professional training, healthcare, advertising, public policy and social change. For example, games from websites such as are "very political games groups made outside the corporate game system" that are "raising issues through media but using the distinct properties of games to engage people from a fresh perspective," says Henry Jenkins, the director of MIT's comparative media studies program. Such games, he said, constitute a "radical fictional work."1


In recent years, the US government and military have periodically looked towards game developers to create low-cost simulations that are both accurate and engaging. Game developers' experience with gameplay and game design made them prime candidates for developing these types of simulations which cost millions of dollars less than traditional simulations, which often require special hardware or complete facilities to use.

Advantages to this include:

  • Video and computer game developers are accustomed to developing games quickly and are adept at creating games that simulate—to varying degrees—functional entities such as radar and combat vehicles. Using existing infrastructure, game developers can create games that simulate battles, processes and events at a fraction of the cost of traditional government contractors.
  • Traditional simulators usually cost millions of dollars not only to develop, but also to deploy, and generally require the procurement of specialized hardware. The costs of media for serious games is very low. Instead of volumes of media or computers for high-end simulators, SGs require nothing more than a DVD or even a single CD-ROM, exactly like traditional computer and video games require. Deploying these to the field requires nothing more than dropping them in the mail or accessing a dedicated web site.
  • While SGs are meant to train or otherwise educate users, they often hope to be engaging. Game developers are experienced at making games fun and engaging as their livelihood depends on it. In the course of simulating events and processes, developers automatically inject entertainment and playability in their applications.

Research and education

Health education is a particular area where results have been observed by the use of serious games "Video games, enhanced by behavior-change technology and motivating story lines, offer promise for promoting diet and physical activity change for diabetes and obesity prevention in youth." (Thompson).

Intrinsic motivation is another feature provided by serious games that facilitates education. To produce motivation four characteristics are provided by serious games "challenge, curiosity, control and the imagination / imaginary (fantasy)" (Mouaheb). These four characteristics create a particular advantage "in an educational context the game is likely to make the learning process interesting in itself to obtain the greatest motivation in the learner" (Mouaheb).

The dynamic nature of virtual environments also causes "active participation by the player" (Mouaheb). Active participation leads to "a fertile ground for the generation of real cognitive conflicts ensuring a personal and solid build of knowledge" (Mouaheb). Another researcher confirms this view "computer games are more engaging, motivating and interesting by virtue of their interaction, rich universes, challenges and safety" (Egenfeldt-Nielsen).

The combination of all these factors leads to significant benefits "retention increases when using computer games compared to other teaching" (Egenfeldt-Nielsen). The use of reward in a behavioral sense is also a powerful tool in serious games "the video game will ask a question and the player will answer. When students link the question and the answer enough times, reinforced by a reward, learning will occur" (Egenfeldt-Nielsen).

Limited studies have been performed to compare the effectiveness of serious games to other learning formats. One such study comparing games to an educational video found that "The children playing the video game expressed more enjoyment and learned the same as those watching the television program" (Egenfeldt-Nielsen). Studies have shown that games can have a strong effect on day-to-day health management. In one study, children who played a game about healthy living principles had "a 77 percent drop in visits to urgent care and medical visits in the experimental group compared with the control group" (Egenfeldt-Nielsen).


The classification of serious games is something that is yet to solidify, there are however a number of terms in reasonably common use for inclusion here.

  • Advergames: The use of games for advertising. The approach can include numerous different ways of advertising more or less well-known from other media. You can have product placement, banners in-game or just traffic triggers.
  • Edutainment: A combination of education and entertainment.
  • Games-Based Learning or "Game Learning"- These games have defined learning outcomes. Generally they are designed in order to balance the subject matter with the gameplay and the ability of the player to retain and apply said subject matter to the real world.[8] For example, in soft skills training like Merchants and Triskelion
  • Edumarket Games - When a serious game combines several aspects (such as advergaming and edutainment aspects or persuasive and news aspects), the application is an Edumarket game. For example, Food Force combines news, persuasive and edutainment goals.
  • Newsgames - Journalistic games that report on recent events or deliver an editorial comment. Examples include September 12th[9]
  • Simulations or Simulation Games - games used for the acquisition or exercise of different skills, to teach effective behavior in the context of simulated conditions or situations. In practice, are widely used simulation driving different vehicles (cars, trains, airplanes; e.g. FlightGear), simulation of management of specific industries (e.g. Transport Tycoon), and universal business simulation, developing strategic thinking and teaching users the basics of macro-and microeconomics, the basics of business administration (e.g. Virtonomics).
  • Persuasive Games - games used as persuasion technology
  • Organizational-dynamic games
  • Games for Health, such as games for psychological therapy, cognitive training, emotional training[10] or physical rehabilitation uses.[11] Technology and mental health issues can use Serious Games to make therapy accessible to adolescents who would otherwise would not find a psychotherapist approachable.
  • Exergaming - games that are used as a form of exercise.
  • Art Games - games used to express artistic ideas or art produced through the medium of video games
  • Productivity game - games which reward points for accomplished real-world tasks using to-do lists.
  • Training - See Gamification.
  • Games with a purpose try to solve various tasks that require common sense or human experience in an entertaining setting.

Additionally Julian Alvarez and Olivier Rampnoux (from the European Center for Children's Products, University of Poitiers) have attempted to classify serious games in 5 main categories: Advergaming, Edutainment, Edumarket game, Diverted game and Simulation game.[12]


  • A Force More Powerful (Windows) The video game is designed to teach the waging of conflict using nonviolent methods. Intended for use by activists and leaders of nonviolent resistance and opposition movements.
  • Amnesty the game (Facebook and internet) a game that supports Amnesty International efforts to worldwide abolish the death penalty.
  • Beer distribution game (offline as well as online) a simulation game created by a group of professors of MIT in the early 1960s aimed at illustrating important supply chain management principles, such as the bullwhip effect.
  • Close Combat: Marines: the first version of the Close Combat universe made specifically for military training purposes. Forces consist of USMC and OpFor troops.
  • CyberCIEGE (Microsoft Windows): Computer network security sim game developed by the Naval Postgraduate School. Players protect assets while enabling "users" to achieve their goals.
  • Darfur is Dying (Internet) An online game by mtvU that simulates life in a Darfur refugee camp.
  • DARWARS Ambush! Convoy Simulator developed as part of DARPA's DARWARS project, designed to create low-cost experiential training systems
  • Democracy A political strategy game, that simulates the process of government through simulated policies, laws voters and other variables. Used by a number of US / European schools and other institutions.
  • EteRNA, (Internet) a game in which players attempt to design RNA sequences that fold into a given configuration. Designs are evaluated to improve computer models predicting RNA folding, included selected designs actually synthesized to evaluate RNA folding dynamics against computer predictions.
  • FloodSim (Internet) A flood prevention simulation/strategy game designed to inform the people of the United Kingdom about the dangers of flooding as well as to help gather public opinion on the problem that flooding presents to the UK. The player takes control of the UK's flood policies for three years and attempts to protect the people and the economy of the United Kingdom from damage due to floods.
  • Foldit (Windows, Linux, Mac) Protein folding, puzzle game where results can be used in real science.
  • Food Force (Mac/Windows) Humanitarian video game. The UN's World Food Programme designed this virtual world of food airdrops over crisis zones and trucks struggling up difficult roads under rebel threat with emergency food supplies.
  • Freedom: The Underground Railroad A co-operative strategy board game that has players working together as Abolitionists to help bring an end to slavery in the United States.
  • Genomics Digital Lab (Mac/Windows) A series of interactive science games where users learn about the importance of plants and their contribution to energy and the environment.
  • Global Conflict: Palestine (Mac/Windows): A 3D-adventure/rpg-game. You are given the role of a reporter in Jerusalem, and have to write articles for your paper.
  • HabitRPG (Internet) A habit building program that treats your life like a Role Playing Game.
  • Harpoon (Mac/Windows): Entertainment version was "dual use" from 1989 forward. Professional version Harpoon 3 Professional created in 2002 with help from Australian Defense Department, updated in 2006.
  • History of Biology game (Mac/Windows): History of Biology is a browser based scavenger hunt style educational game designed to teach high school students and general interest groups about the history of biology covering topics such as early microscopes, classification, taxonomy, heredity, genetics, and evolution.
  • Houthoff Buruma The Game: serious game for recruitment purposes, developed by Dutch law firm Houthoff Buruma.
  • IBM CityOne (Internet): designed by IBM as part of the IBM Smarter Planet initiative. The game is designed to educate the player of the complex systems and how they connect in a modern city.
  • IntelliGym (Mac/Windows/Linux): A series of computer based cognitive simulators that trains athletes and designed to enhance brain skills associated with sports-related performance.
  • Merchants: A video game designed by Gamelearn to learn and train negotiation skills.
  • Microsoft Flight Simulator (Microsoft Windows) developed as a comprehensive simulation of civil aviation. Notably one of the few flight simulation games that does not concentrate on simulation of aerial warfare.
  • NanoMission (Microsoft Windows): A series created for the non-profit group Cientifica in order to teach about nanomedicine, nanotechnology and associated concepts through a series of action games.
  • Novicraft HRD game (Microsoft Windows): NoviCraft is a serious game for supporting business customers in social excellence, in learning to construct shared understanding together with different people in changing contexts.
  • Peacemaker (Mac/PC) A commercial game simulation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict designed to promote "dialog and understanding among Israelis, Palestinians and interested people around the world".
  • Phylo (Internet): A game that invites players to give in to their addictive gaming impulses while contributing to the greater good by trying to decode the code for genetic diseases.[13]
  • Re-Mission (Microsoft Windows): 3-D Shooter to help improve the lives of young persons living with cancer.
  • Ship Simulator (Microsoft Windows): a simulator which simulates maneuvering various ships in different environments, although without the effects of wind and current.
  • SimPort (Mac/Windows): A simulation game in which players learn about the intricacies involved in construction large infrastructural projects, like a major sea port.
  • SimulTrain (Mac/Windows/Online): A project management simulation of the planning and execution phases of a medium-sized project for a team of four people.
  • Steel Beasts Professional (Microsoft Windows): Tank simulator, developed by eSim Games, and used by several armies around the world.
  • Triskelion: A video game designed by Gamelearn to learn and train time management skills.
  • VBS1 & VBS2 Training tool for the British Military and the USMC and other military forces around the world. Developed by BIA, and based on the game engine used in Operation Flashpoint and Armed Assault.
  • X-Plane (Linux/Mac/Windows): a comprehensive civil aviation simulator. An FAA approved version exists which enables low cost flight training.

See also


  1. ^ Ernest Adams (2009-07-09). "Sorting Out the Genre Muddle". Gamasutra. Retrieved 2009-05-23. 
  2. ^ "Abt Associates Inc. History, 1970-1974". Abt Associates Inc. Retrieved 2009-07-18. 
  3. ^ Rice, J. W. (2007). Assessing higher order thinking in video games. Journal of Technology and Teacher Education, 15(1), 87.
  4. ^ "Education Update"; Back To Basics; Dr. Carole G. Hankin and Randi T. Sachs; 2002
  5. ^ a b c Klopfer E. Augmented Learning : Research and Design of Mobile Educational Games [e-book]. MIT Press; 2008. Available from: eBook Collection, Ipswich, MA. Accessed July 26, 2011.
  6. ^ Gray, J. H., Bulat, J., Jaynes, C., & Cunningham, A. (2009). LeapFrog learning. Mobile Technology for Children: Designing for Interaction and Learning, , 171.
  7. ^ Macedonia, M. (2001). Games, simulation, and the military education dilemma. Internet and the University, , 157-167.
  8. ^ The book 'Digital Game-Based Learning' by Marc Prensky was the first major publication to define the term, The Official Site of the book 'Digital Game-Based Learning' by Marc Prensky
  9. ^ Gonzalo Frasca of which denounces the use of violence to resolve the problem of terrorism.
  10. ^ Rizzo A., John B., Sheffield B., Newman B., Williams J., Hartholt A., Lethin C., Buckwalter J.G., Virtual Reality as a Tool for Delivering PTSD Exposure Therapy and Stress Resilience Training, In Military Behavioral Health, volume 1, 2012.
  11. ^ Rego, P., Moreira, P.M., Reis, L.P., Serious games for rehabilitation: A survey and a classification towards a taxonomy,In Information Systems and Technologies (CISTI), 2010 5th Iberian Conference on , pp.1,6, 16-19, 2010. [1]
  12. ^ Alvarez J., Rampnoux O., Serious Game: Just a question of posture?, in Artificial & Ambient Intelligence, AISB'07, Newcastle, UK, April 2007, p.420 to 423
  13. ^ By Lisa Grossman (2010-11-30). "Computer Game Makes You a Genetic Scientist". Retrieved 2012-10-24. 

Further reading

  • Abt, C. (1970). Serious Games. New York: The Viking Press.
  • Zyda, M. (September 2005). "From visual simulation to virtual reality to games". IEEE Computer.
  • Baranowski T, Buday R, Thompson DI, Baranowski J. Playing for real: video games and stories for health-related behavior change. Am J Prev Med. 2008 Jan;34(1):74-82.
  • Digitalarti Mag #0 (2009). Serious Game. pp. 24–25. 
  • Aldrich, Clark (2009). The Complete Guide to Simulations and Serious Games. Pfeiffer. p. 576.  
  • Reeves, Byron; Reed, J. Leighton (2009). Total Engagement: Using Games and Virtual Worlds to Change the Way People Work and Businesses Compete. Boston: Harvard Business School Publishing.
  • Lang, F., Pueschel, T. and Neumann, D. (2009). "Serious Gaming for the Evaluation of Market Mechanisms", Proceedings of the International Conference on Information Systems (ICIS)2009.
  • Thompson D, Baranowski T, Buday R et al. Serious Video Games for Health: How Behavioral Science Guided the Development of a Serious Video Game. Simulation Gaming August 2010 vol. 41 no. 4 587-606.
  • Houda Mouaheb, Ahmed Fahli, Mohammed Moussetad, Said Eljamali. The Serious Game: What Educational Benefits? Sep 6, 2012
  • Egenfeldt-Nielsen, Simon. The basic learning approach behind Serious Games. April 2005
  • Egenfeldt-Nielsen, Simon. Overview of research on the educational use of video games. March 2006
  • M. Graafland, J. M. Schraagen, M. P. Schijven. Systematic review of serious games for medical education and surgical skills training.
  • M.B. Jalink, J. Goris, E. Heineman, J.P. Pierie, H.O. ten Cate Hoedemaker. The effects of video games on laparoscopic simulator skills..
  • Anderson, E. F.; McLoughlin, L.; Liarokapis, F.; Peters, C.; Petridis, P.; de Freitas, S. (2009), "Serious Games in Cultural Heritage", VAST-STAR, Short and Project Proceedings, 10th VAST International Symposium on Virtual Reality, Archaeology and Cultural Heritage ( 
  • The International Journal on Serious Games, a scientific Open Access Journal, first issue January 2014.
  • "Winners & Learners: Classroom Discourse Surrounding Educational Games" by Kristen Shanahan
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