Upcoming Events
Unite 2010
11/10 - 11/12 @ Montréal, Canada

GDC China
12/5 - 12/7 @ Shanghai, China

Asia Game Show 2010
12/24 - 12/27  

GDC 2011
2/28 - 3/4 @ San Francisco, CA

More events...
Quick Stats
107 people currently visiting GDNet.
2406 articles in the reference section.

Help us fight cancer!
Join SETI Team GDNet!
Link to us Events 4 Gamers
Intel sponsors gamedev.net search:

Serious Games Summit 2004 Report

The Serious Side of Having Fun by David Michael

If you think that games are only for having fun, for entertaining yourself by matching colors and killing time and ogres in fantasy worlds, then you would've been in for a shock at the Serious Games Summit in Washington, DC.

Over 600 people came together to discuss "serious games": games with a purpose other than just entertaining players. "Serious games," said Jim Dunnigan in his opening keynote address, "are games you have to play."

At once nascent and as old as computers, serious games represent a new way to design games--and maybe a profitable new market for game developers. However, far more than just game developers were in attendance. Representatives attended from the military, education, healthcare, corporate training, psychology, cultural studies, and more.

Military Games

The United States Army's new recruiting tool, America's Army, has become the poster child of serious games, showing what can be done and opening up new possibilities. Built on the Unreal Engine from Epic Games, targeting a demand for a realistic, team-oriented combat game, America's Army has been much more successful than the Army expected. "We thought it would be big," said Col. Casey Wardynski, Director of the US Army's Office of Economic and Manpower Analysis. "But not this big." With over 17 million downloads, 4 million registered players, and growing at a rate of 100,000 new players each month, it's easy to understand why America's Army is generating attention.

The combat training applications of video games are obvious, but there has also been work in using games to train soldiers for non-combat arenas. Hannes Vilhjalmsson, a researcher at the University of Southern Califormia, demonstrated the Tactical Language Skill Builder, a game-based effort to teach language skills to predominantly monolinguistic US soldiers before they ship out. In a similar vein, Thomas Santorelli showed off VECTOR. With the nature of warfare changing from pitched battles to peacekeeping and clashes with insurgents and guerillas, soldiers need to better understand and interact with foreign cultures. VECTOR uses cognitive and emotional modeling to provide cultural training to soldiers, while also trying to be an "engaging game".

The military is easily the largest market, at least currently, for training games and simulations. And not just the US military. The success of America's Army has generated interest for similar projects in the British and French militaries.

Learning from Games

Col. Casey told us that America's Army, by being a free download and a good game, had become a goodwill ambassador to the world, showcasing American values of teamwork and loyalty to the world. Such positive messages, however, are not the only ones being presented. Brian Williams, in the panel "Non-Combat Military Game Efforts", discussed how open source technologies were "empowering people" to create games that attempt to influence philosophically--including games depicting the United States as the "bad guy".

Do games really present messages like this? And do the players notice? The video game industry has an interest in the messages, if any, that games send to players, and in what effect those messages might have. Since serious games are based on the belief that games do teach ("All games teach," Jim Dunnigan declared), the video game industry might soon find itself in an odd position in the on-going debate of the influence of games on behavior and attitudes. On the one hand trying to promote games as vehicles for learning, while simultaneously trying to defend themselves from efforts to regulate and censor their content--for exactly that reason.

In the panel "How Can Games Shape Future Behaviors?", James Paul Gee, author of What Video Games have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy, talked about the amount of "transfer" (of ideas, skills, etc.) that happens between games and players. The views on the subject have shifted over the years, from "transfer is easy" to "transfer is impossible" to the current position of "transfer is possible"--but it isn't cheap, quick or easy.

In the same panel, Debra Lieberman, a professor in the Department of Communication at the University of California, Santa Barbara, talked about experiences in games as being "real", since we respond to those experiences in much the same way we do real events. "The player is the character," she said. With the engaging nature of games, the power of in-game consequences and rewards, she saw a lot of potential in games to do more than just entertain or teach, but to actually change behavior.

The corporate training industry is also looking to use games. Paul Medcalf, Director of Multimedia for InSite Interactive, talked about the "trinity of educational game design", bringing together subject matter, game design, and instructional design. To integrate games with training, he talked about "games as momentum" to generate enthusiasm among trainees, "games as a measure" of retention of the material presented, and "games as instruction" via simulated situations. Andrew Kimball, CEO of QBInternational, talked about three kinds of educatational games: assessment games, learning games, and information-gathering games. "A game's success," Andrew said, "is directly related to the learner's motivation" to play the game.

Ian Bogost, a professor at Georgia Institute of Technology and editor of Water Cooler Games, moderated the panel "Games as Mass Media Dialogue Devices". Ian described games as a socially expressive media, as much as any other medium, and capable of expression beyond war and education. He saw games as capable of advocacy, activism, politics, and (of course) advertising.

Healing through Games

An area of serious games that I found interesting was in healthcare, for both physical and mental training and recovery. A number of products already exist, like the "exer-gaming" stationary bikes from NeXfit, and "The Wild Divine Project", which is described as the "first 'inner-active' computer adventure that combines ancient breathing and meditation with modern biofeedback technology for total mind-body wellness".

Dr. Mark Wiederhold, co-founder of the Virtual Reality Medical Center, talked about the many uses of video games (which he equated with "virtual reality") in modern medicine. Some examples:

  • using video games to distract patients during painful medical procedures
  • using simulations to improve rehabilitation
  • using VR environments to improve motor skills
  • using video games for therapeutic interventions

Dr. Mark focused primarily on using inexpensive ("if it's not inexpensive, it won't be used"), off-the-shelf software and equipment. Some games are less suitable to healthcare purposes (he talked about using FPS's to treat fear spiders, since shooting seems effective in that case, but he added that he would like to move past that to gameplay mechanics that offered more depth), but others have been surprisingly effective. For example, the driving game Midtown Madness has been used to treat driving phobia. And Super Monkey Ball has been shown to improve the hand-eye coordination of surgeons.

To improve the state of games in healthcare, Dr. Mark expressed a wish for more avatars in games, and more and better interaction with objects in the game worlds. In closing he said that there needs to be more proof, with validated metrics, that training in video games transfers to the real world.

Learning Assessment

Throughout the Summit, no one asked if was possible for games to teach. This was a given, where the whole conference started. There was a Big Question, though: How do we measure what has been learned?

"There is no magic bullet," Aaron Thibault declared at the beginning of his lecture "Assessment and the Future of Fluid Learning Environments." And from what he had to say, it didn't sound like there was any of the more mundane ammunition available either. The nature of games as "fluid learning environments", or learning environments that adapt to learners over time, makes it difficult to assess what the player learned, how quickly he learned it, and so on.

Currently, assessment is limited to more traditional testing approaches, and self assessments given by the players before and after playing. Without a gauge of both before and after, it's impossible to know if anything was learned--and just because the player thinks he learned something doesn't mean that he actually did.

Aaron talked about the need to construct a framework for assessment of game learning, based on cognitive psychology, game design, machine learning, neurobiology, educational theory, et cetera. Until some methodology can be created and agreed upon, it will be necessary to "keep humans in the loop". That is, someone will have to present to administer the necessary tests.

"We know that learning occurs in games," said Kurt Squire in his presentation, "What Happens when Games go into any Classroom Situation?" What we don't know, he added, is:

  • What makes a "good" serious game?
  • How do people interpret game play?
  • How will the technology of serious games be socially constructed?

When games have been introduced into classrooms and other learning situations, there is a blending of cultures: the teaching culture, the classroom or school culture, and gaming culture. The gaming culture is evidenced when experienced game players take on the game as a game and create a result unexpected by the game designers or educators. And not a harmless result, either, since it can skew the assessment of whether the game succeeded at teaching the desired skill, information, or attitude.

Kurt stressed the need for more research on how people play and learn, and how they learn while playing. "We tend to use technology to reproduce what we're already doing," he said. An example of this is in the early uses of film and video to simply play back pre-recorded lectures. Games and traditional schools function very differently, and we must revisit our theories of learning before we can make any progress in this area.


Serious games have been around for decades, but have seldom received much attention from the greater part of the video game development industry. As games mature as a medium of expression, and as they become a still more important part of mainstream culture, their use in education (and training, and physical therapy, and pyschotherapy, and ...) is inevitable.

How video games will be used in education, and how their effectiveness will be tested and proven, are still very much in question. There is a lot of research that must be completed, both to find new ways to use educational games and to discover how educational games should be designed.

There can be little doubt, however, that serious games represent one of the most significant trends in video game development.

About the Author

David Michael is the author of "The Indie Game Development Survival Guide" (Charles River Media; ISBN:1584502142) and is a regular contributer to GameDev.net.



  Printable version
  Discuss this article