GDC: Getting excited about serious games

A panel discusses how serious games have come a long way, what they mean to society today, and what needs to be done to ensure they stick around.

SAN JOSE, Calif.--"Serious games" may sound like an oxymoron, but to many in the gaming industry, they make perfect sense. Games for the purpose of military simulations, social activism, and collaborative learning have been a part of the gaming landscape since the early 1980s, and the field is growing rapidly as gaming and development tools become more widespread.

At the 2006 Game Developers Conference, which kicked off today in San Jose, a panel of new media scholars and producers discussed the future of serious gaming before attendees that had interests in the academic, nonprofit, and industry benefits of serious games.

Panel moderator Suzanne Seggerman opened discussion by giving an overview of the evolving genre, from Chris Crawford's social activism games of the 1980s (which included Hidden Agenda and Balance of Power) to the many takes on contemporary "serious" games. Seggerman is the executive cirector of Games for Change, a nonprofit group devoted to helping organizations advance social change through games.

"We need to pay special attention to how to reach new kinds of audiences," she said. "Doctors using training games, nonprofits, activists, constituents, old-fashioned museum goers, the elderly, politicians--all these groups, right now, are target audiences for the kind of games we're looking at. So we have our work cut out for us."

All of the panelists noted that as games become an increasingly prominent cultural genre, they are attracting more attention as possible vehicles for messages beyond just entertainment. Katie Salen, director of graduate studies for design and digital media at the Parsons School of Design, discussed some of the exciting developments in academic circles, where serious games can serve not only as an educational tool but as a form of cultural activism.

"What does it mean to bring a radical text into the classroom? I like to think about the notion of serious games, and games for change, and games that might provide alternatives for more diverse voices, more diverse content, as a kind of radical text."

Already, Salen's students at Parsons have created games with deliberate social and cultural messages. Among them are Plunder, a strategy game putting players in the role of a global corporation operating in a developing nation, and Election 2004, where users sway undecided voters in a mock California election by "shooting" them with campaign ads and political messages. In her comments, Salen argued that serious gaming should include serious approaches to commercial games as well as explicitly noncommercial or social activism works.

One major indicator that serious games are gaining more interest was the presence of Lucy Bernholz, a philanthropic consultant standing in as a representative of the MacArthur Foundation, best known for their "genius grants" to highly qualified individuals.

Bernholz noted, "The fact that MacArthur and others are now thinking about games is a good thing. If they're thinking about games, they're thinking about them in the context of digital media." As part of their efforts to develop critical work in digital media, the foundation is working to foster more creative independent game projects, most prominently by funding a joint initiative with Gamelab, a New York City-based game developer, and the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

The fourth panelist, Carl Goodman, deputy director for digital media at the Museum of the Moving Image, discussed the important role games play as part of our cultural history. The Museum of the Moving Image includes extensive holdings of socially and culturally expressive games and installations, and not just in specialty exhibits.

"Video games are actually being integrated into our core narrative," said Goodman. The museum already features a variety of metagaming experiences, allowing visitors to play the classic Pole Position and a recent version of the Burnout franchise, driving games separated by decades. He also suggested that some of the most interesting serious gaming is the product of commercial games that "bleed" media. Goodman pointed out that many more people have seen the machinima movie The French Democracy than have played The Movies, the commercial game in which it was created.

The panelists stepped lightly around the limitations of the serious-games movement, but audience members jumped right into the question of how "serious" serious gaming really is. Several of the panelists admitted their own limited knowledge of games, and one self-described hardcore gamer pointed out that academic game development is hampered by the fact that professional developers will always follow the money to commercial projects. Another attendee argued that "anyone who's played Unreal Tournament 2004 for 400 hours online knows that teamwork is taught in that game in a way it's not taught anywhere else."

The panelists agreed that serious gaming is an exciting new field for mainstream cultural heavyweights to explore, but that finding "works that prompt public reflection and conversation beyond the game itself," as Goodman put it, is still a ways off.

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Discussion

26 comments
talha212
talha212

i think that most games today not only teaches us new and morderate way s of changing our lifes but also gives us the idea of the pros and cons of our past mistakes........not only this but i think that games are the best teachers of history and current affairs..( mgs series anyone?)...

chrisdojo
chrisdojo

yeehaw.....i'm gonna buckle down for e3.

frankeyser
frankeyser

that is how i got really good at typing is playing all the word blaster games when i was in school.

pyth0n13
pyth0n13

gdc just keep gettin gbetter and better

Achilles438
Achilles438

Pretty soon they could make games that teach some skills in school and they can actually be fun to play...

Safe_Bet
Safe_Bet

Great read and it gives me hope for the future...

spr4yp4int
spr4yp4int

I don't think politicans and parents are ready to take that yet ;)

Hellisunreal
Hellisunreal

Finally, people are starting to explore (at least in discussions & deabates), the length & breadth of what is POSSIBLE with video games.

KiLLer_ba
KiLLer_ba

That cool, games getting serious

cyrax_smetsers
cyrax_smetsers

every game is like this really! atleast alot of FPS are,cant say Dead or alive 4 made me think im getting a real team tactic in mind,sure shows me how to beat to pOOh out of babes that run round in way to short jeans :D. Though if you look at Counter-Strike,rumours went around that even the Army used to play this game setting up tactics(INGAME) that they would use in real life aswell....well i dno how they doing that lol sounds bit like the army's filled up with NERDS!!!!

Groqislander
Groqislander

It's about time games are taken more seriously. The Military, Law Enforcement, are already getting benefit from simulations why not open the door for other professions?

iscariot83
iscariot83

I hope games head more in this direction...Deus Ex has some big time social critiques in it that really enhance the atmospheric feel of the world, and you can't help but learn in games. Where's the better place to have your ranged units, on top of a cliff or at the base of it? Congratulations, you've learned how the English won the battle of Hastings in 1066 :)

buildar
buildar

That wa s long article and i remmeber growing up as a kid playing things like Dr. Brain that taught you logic and planning skills in a game. Also RTS games have been shown in studies to promote long term planning in real life situations. Games already can teach you something, they just need to find a market where you can learn a career in a game.

zeroroach
zeroroach

Odin897, what makes social activism so bad?

Merl57
Merl57

Well a lot of games today are politically driven and relfect our times just like any other form of culutral expression. (which can not be restricted by law)

Odin897
Odin897

Oh Jesus...games for social activism. Talk about a perversion of the medium.

NeoJedi
NeoJedi

Another attendee argued that "anyone who's played Unreal Tournament 2004 for 400 hours online knows that teamwork is taught in that game in a way it's not taught anywhere else." = A good thing to remember.

SilverGuy999999
SilverGuy999999

I'm very interested to see the future evoloution of video games and where they are heading. Video games are starting to get recognized seriously as a huge industry which only helps to fuel the future of serious gaming. I feel so happy to get to see video games evolve even more over my lifetime (i'm 16 now) and can't wait to see what the future holds for the video game industry and the evolution of serious games.

blackIceJoe
blackIceJoe

THat was great I for one think it is real cool to think that the first game was Pong and we got so many cool games to play it is so not funny.I think there are many games that can help so I think games are doing real fine.

joeamis
joeamis

Excellent read. There have always been serious games. There have always been educational games. And even commercial games teach people some significant things. If commercial games had more serious content, and less reliance on violence I think we would see more creativity and less backlash.

PiNoYPrOjEcT
PiNoYPrOjEcT

oh man.. now they make games like it's school or something..

Truth01
Truth01

I think that most games right now teach you something. But if more games start coming out that are targeted to be educational, they must also remain entertaining. Games must be fun to be educational.

HaloMaster21
HaloMaster21

Weird, Video games will finally be used to benefeit the public