Essential facts you should know about Serious Games.

There are a lot of great success stories out there of companies and organizations that use serious games in a wide range of cases to solve all sorts of types of problems. Being such a new and thriving domain, it's sometimes hard to make sense of it all. 
The point of this post is to help you understand serious games a little bit better and figure out as quickly as possible where they might do some good in solving some of your problems. 
First of all what is a serious game? A serious game is a game-like activity which, as the name implies, has a purpose. There are a lot of very interesting serious applications of game like activities. It can help people in the work environment do things like trying to anticipate what the future market will look like for their products and services or in politics, where a game could be used to bridge some of the political differences between parties and help make some very though decisions that would have an effect on the community or an entire nation. There are even uses for serious games in therapy, where they help people break through insights into some of the problems they are having with their spouses, their family etc.
Serious games are games for a reason - I think very often people are a little worried about the word "game" thinking it sounds like it's going to trivialize things. You shouldn't worry about it. Look at it this way: a game is a moment in time when people step outside the normal rules of conduct into the magic circle (Johan Huizinga in "Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture") in which we operate under a different set of assumptions, under a different set of guidelines for how we behave; we do that when we play games for fun and entertainment purposes but for serious games we do it for a different, more constructive reason. To use an example from urban planning, how would the government of Rotterdam engage the citizen of the city to understand what sort of Rotterdam the public wants? Normally there are typical ways of doing that, we vote for representatives, we send letters etc. but what if we could, for a moment in time, step into the magic circle and play a game where we the public play the role of decision makers and making choices about the kind of programs we want for the city that will then stir the community towards where we want it to be. The city of San Jose developed this game
Serious games have a definable outcome. A lot of our activities don't have definable outcomes. Often brainstorming activities kind of devolve into a lot of talking, sometimes planned meetings devolve into minutia about resourses and schedules and so forth without talking about how much value we're ultimatelly going to be delivering from the effort that we're making in product development or whatever the task at hand is. Games are efficient in that they force upon you a definable outcome. If we would play a Caterpillar game about the future of the market that we're going to be in, the outcome of the game will be a simulated future of the market place. Playing the game will help figure out who our competitors are going to be, where partners are going to be, what are the likely outcomes if we make certain choices. The end product to the game could be a set of options we maybe haven't considered, a set of pros and cons of choosing particular options that we haven't fully thought through. That is the kind of definable outcome all games have after stepping in the magic circle for that short interval. 
Serious games have rules. Rules are different then they are in the normal workplace. If I'm a struggling company in the software services business, one of the problems may be alignment, meaning that different parts of the company don't understand in the same way what the company as a whole is ultimately trying to do. One part of the company might think the purpose of the company is to maximize the amount of revenue it makes, another part of the company might believe that what the company is ultimately trying to do is increase its market share. In this case, a prioritization game could help: we sit down everybody together and we're going to figure out how well we mutually understand what, in priority order, those objectives should be. But there can only be 5. Therefore having a ground rule of 5 can be very powerful in posing a discipline to the discussion. 
Serious games are participatory. Anybody can play. Everybody who is involved can make a choice, do certain thinks , but the goal of the game is always the same for everyone. A wonderful example of the power of participation is the game Foldit - a revolutionary crowdsourcing computer game enabling anyone to contribute to important scientific research.
In many organizations, there are people who don't get heard, so this idea that everybody can play has a lot of power outside the biological sciences, in places where for example there are people in technical support who normally don't get involved in product decisions and yet they are the very people best positioned to understand the consequences of choices that the product development people make. What bugs do we fix in the software? what features do we prioritize? How hard is to install, configure and use the software? Those are the kinds of questions that generate the support calls and yet the support people aren't even involved into making the decisions. So in some companies the game is a vehicle then for involving these people whose voices don't get usually heard. They get then a chance to play the game of deciding in the future versions of the software product what kinds of bugs get prioritized, what kind of features get the most attention and so forth.
Hopefully this cleared up some of the misunderstandings of what serious games are. This will be part of an ongoing blog about the wonderful potential games have in bettering lives.

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