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.

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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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