Serious Games: Soul-Searching

There’s been quite a bit of soul-searching in the serious games community as of late. Some smart, dedicated people are wondering why the serious game market hasn’t taken off yet, why it isn’t swimming in funds (governmental, non-profit, or corporate), and why developers generally don’t take this stuff, well… seriously.

Unfortunately, the phrase “serious games” has come to encapsulate so much that I find it difficult to say anything meaningful on the subject. For example, I think developments in the “games for health” space are quite promising (and I know that corporations like Nintendo, Sony, and Konami would agree.) On the other hand, the “games for education” space — arguably the standard-bearer for the serious games movement — is really struggling. So I’m going to focus this post on games for education.

The educational game movement has a problem. Most people on the street can’t name a “commercially-successful” educational title. Those who can will inevitably name Oregon Trail or Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego, neither of which were actually all that educational. And they’re both so old! What’s up with that?

There are many explanations:

  • Companies that have attempted to make educational games in the past didn’t necessarily know that much about games.
  • Schools are reluctant to purchase games that don’t purport to significantly increase test scores (but games that prepare students for standardized tests are more likely to be boring, glorified workbooks).
  • Funding hasn’t been available in sufficient quantities for organizations to make and thoroughly test multiple games… so plenty of bad games have been made, but no one has had opportunity to build on the experience of making them!
  • Good games are already hard enough to make; layering educational goals on top is just asking for trouble. And the list goes on…

I’ve heard various responses to these issues. More standards. More research. More money. All would be good, but I’m not entirely convinced that any (or even all) of these solutions are enough — at least in the short term.

Maybe we’re going at educational gaming the wrong way. Will Wright said some really wonderful things in his GDC keynote about games’ ability to inspire and teach. But I don’t think he was talking about “teaching” in the traditional sense. I think he simply meant opening people’s eyes to interesting things, then trusting in human nature to do the rest. Come to think of it, maybe he was talking about teaching in the (true) traditional sense…

Maybe we need to shift focus away from making games that inherently convey large quantities of “educational” content to making games that simply ignite a powerful desire to learn. It’s funny — the Civilization franchise is always touted as “the commercial success that also happens to be educational!” But you don’t actually learn all that much from playing Civ. I mean, you can’t play Civ and, by doing so, pass a final exam in history class. You probably can’t even pass a 3rd grade weekly. But if there’s a history major buried deep down in some kid; well, no matter how deep, playing Civ is going to wake it!

You know how they say, “Give a man a fish, and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he’ll eat for a lifetime”? You’d think making traditional educational games would be in the spirit of that maxim. But maybe traditional games are like force-feeding kids a fish, and games with educational overtones (but little more) are like teaching kids to love fishing? I know that this was part of the guiding philosophy behind the Education Arcade’s Revolution project. The more I think about it, the more it feels “right.”

Anyway, just my random thoughts. I don’t think we should give up working on games that can teach large volumes of knowledge in and of themselves. But maybe making kids feel good about a subject is a noble enough goal in and of itself. Of course, given the current obsession with standardized testing, it’s hard to imagine schools getting into this…

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