Saturday, May 14, 2005

Serious Games: A broader definition

I was hoping to polish off a simple, easy to use definition of serious games. I ran into the following difficulties immediately:
  • A wide spectrum of groups are interested in serious games
  • Each group has a radically different understanding of the term ‘serious games’
The company I work at is in somewhat of a unique position. We’ve been working on game technology for the past 10 years and have been successfully selling solutions into businesses for many years. Our customers include Boeing, Panasonic, USAF, Maseratti, AMD, Nvidia, Sony and more. We’ve sold both product and services to everything from large enterprise companies to defense to game companies. I’ve personally been able to witness hundreds of projects from start to completion.

We’ve learned some good lessons about this new movement people are now calling ‘serious games’. Sometimes the lessons were painful. Sometimes they were surprisingly positive.

I’ll begin this series of essays on Serious Games with something fundamental. The public definition of serious games doesn’t match the experience of people selling serious games.

Lessons 1: The man on the street doesn’t understand the benefit of games, but he does understand the benefit of game technology.

Why does the following situation occur?
  • Show a business leader a game of chess and ask them to purchase a strategic training application and they’ll laugh you out of the office.
  • Show them a great 3D engine and ask them to purchase a strategic training application and they’ll ask you how much it would cost to ship them one by next Friday.
A broken definition of serious games
“The Serious Games Initiative is focused on uses for games in exploring management and leadership challenges facing the public sector. Part of its
overall charter is to help forge productive links between the electronic game
industry and projects involving the use of games in education, training, health,
and public policy” -
This definition of serious games is too narrow. The goal is admirable, but there is more value hidden within game development than just games for ‘education, training, health, and public policy.’ We need a definition of serious games that includes the core reason why businesses care.

The problem with selling ‘games’ to business
The benefit of a game is still questionable to many people. First, there is no concrete evidence that says ‘games increase learning by X%’. There is great work being done here, but overwhelming evidences that games are an inherently useful tool does not yet exist.

Second, when I start a conversation with the claim that ‘games are good at teaching people.’ I get blank stares. This theory may be common knowledge within academia and game design circles, but to the broader world (people over 40) games are still seen as toys. Every time I sit in on a sales call, I’m reminded that we have decades left of intense public relations before we change this basic cultural stereotype.

As a developer, this irks me. As a businessman, I have to bite my tongue and admit that it will take a long while to boil this particular ocean.

3D means replacing real world experiences
Game technology, surprisingly, is a completely different matter. Modern games use 3D to let users experience realistic simulated situations that would otherwise be difficult or impossible to experience in the real world. People grok this concept intuitively. When a business person looks at Half Life, they may not care about the game design aspects of the title, but they grasp that they are witnessing impressive technology that has the ability to change how we interact with the world.

I’ve heard variations on the following scenario many times. “My son was playing Half Life and he had to turn on a bunch of valves to get the water level to drop. Why, we do the same thing in our company training. If I could give people an application that lets them virtually mess with valves, I could save millions.” People use different words based off their individual problem, but the core concepts are the same

  • 3D games let people experience real world activities
  • It is expensive, dangerous, etc to let people perform certain real world activities at my company.
  • A 3D application that replaces certain real world activities would be immediately valuable to me.
3D matters
I’m going to broach a subject that is a bit of ‘the elephant in the room’ in my conversations with my colleagues who are deeply excited by the concept of serious games.

Are you curious why serious games only started to take off in the past couple of years? ‘Serious games’ have honestly been around for ages. Call them edutainment or simulations if you wish, but the basic concept of learning games has been a niche aspect of training and education for at least a decade or more.

It is only with the introduction of 3D that this market is taking off. This makes me suspicions that the learning / edutainment / game design aspect of serious games is not the key factor driving current growth.

Based off my experience, many companies are not primarily looking for games per se. People with money are looking for 3D applications to solve previously intractable business problems. The modern game industry with its hyper-realistic, low cost 3D worlds is hitting business over the head with a potential solution to their business problem.

We’ve made the intractable possible. People are flocking to serious games because we are finally offering the right technology at the right price.

Lesson 2: When a business person says ‘game’ there’s a good chance he is talking about a ‘3D application.’
Game developers and designers are fooled by this sudden interest in 3D game technology. They bring their decades of expertise in game design to the table and immediately start talking about learning, reward systems, and ‘fun’. Stop. Take a deep breath.

There are 3D applications that use modern game technology that are not ‘games’. They don’t need to be fun. They don’t need learning or reward systems. They have none of the formal requirements of a game based on any one of the dozen definitions you might throw at them.

We work with a large company that sells airplanes. They love our game technology because it lets them save about $10 million per airplane they configure. The application dynamically builds up an entire 3D airplane from information stored in a database and interactively lets customers change out parts. It replaces a telephone book of options and a large, but relatively useless, physical mockup.

This is a 3D application that solves a business problem. It is described as ‘game-like’. It is described as ‘using game technology’. But it isn’t a game. We need a name for this very useful application.

Two overlapping categories
I see two categories of serious games:
  • Games: Applications focused on learning, simulation and fun.
  • 3D applications: Applications that use 3D game technology and techniques to solve business problems.
Both types of applications are valid and useful. The goal of this article is to broaden the concept of serious games, not dismiss the wonderful learning applications of games. The two categories certainly overlap.

  • There are 3D applications that are not games
  • There are 3D applications that are games
  • There are games that are not 3D applications

Looking at serious games from a business perspective
Serious games aficionados should avoid jumping to the conclusion that serious games customers want games. Instead ask some basic questions first.

  • What is the business problem?
  • What are the tools required to solve the business problem?
  • What is the solution the solves the business problem?
You may find that they need a 3D application that only uses game technology and not game design. In my experience, this is the case in approximately 90% of the customers who approach us. (Your experiences naturally will vary. We are all blind men describing a different part of this new market.)

The fuzzy boundary between games and 3D applications
It is tempting to say that serious games only deal with the gaming-focused solutions and other types of 3D applications are not serious games. But the differences are not clear cut.

Borderline Game #1: Let’s consider the airplane configuration tool that I mentioned earlier. It turns out that there is a quite a large amount of simulation involved in its creation.
  • Application of complex business rules to give feedback on weight distribution and object placement. The system can tell you if you are going to be able to fly to Seattle or not.
  • The physics of navigating a large aircraft.
Are there goals? The buyer certainly has goals and they manipulate the tool to reach certain cost, distance and maintenance goals. It still isn’t a game, but it has many of the attributes possessed by games.

Borderline Game #2: There’s another application that we built for a maintenance repair project. Technologically and architecturally it is nearly identical to the plane configuration tool. The user is placed in a training scenario where they have 15 minutes to repair a broken seat monitor. They rush around through a virtual airplane, replacing parts and running tests. If they succeed, they are told ‘good job’ and given a score in the LMS (Learning management system).

Is this a game? The customer thinks of it as a training application. It turns out that there is an element of ‘fun’ to it, even though it was never built as a game. You could even take each training scenario and plunk it into the middle of Half Life 2 and no one would suspect that these ‘levels’ came from a training application.

In short, if the definition of a ‘game’ is poorly defined, then the definition of a serious game is even fuzzier. I find it difficult to draw a clean line between games, simulations, and 3D applications. Even more to the point, many customers do not make this distinction. In the immortal words of a friend who works on these problems daily, “It uses game ‘stuff’, therefore it is a serious game.”

Broadening the Serious Games definition?

Tunnel vision
Many websites that cover serious games focus on the game aspect of Serious Games and very little on the technology and process transfer into 3D applications.

I believe this is short sighted. Serious games has the potential to be far more than an simple opportunity for game developers to make games that happen to exist in a business setting. The serious games movement acts as an ambassador that promotes the adoption of modern game technology, processes and thinking throughout the larger business community.

We are finally getting the rest of the world to talk about games in a positive light. Serious games is the start of a wave that is spreading into the mainstream press. Do we really want to promote the implicit message that “Game technology is only useful for training and nothing else.”?

Ambassadors of the beneficial side of games
If the serious games community wants to embrace its growing role as the pragmatic, beneficial face of the game industry, we need to set our sights higher. Discussing the joys of finished game is a start, but we also need to promote the rest of our secret sauce outside of the gaming community What about:

  • Game development techniques and processes
  • Game development skills and expertise
  • Game design techniques and philosophy
Make it pertinent
In order to serve as ambassadors we need to make each of these elements pertinent to the people paying our bills. As game developers, we need to go to the mountain since the mountain isn’t going to come to us.

  • Speak the language of business: We need to understand business problems at the same level and often better than the businesses do.
  • Integrate with their systems and processes: We need to work within their ecosystem of databases, security concerns, and business logic.
  • Understand business value of our solution: We need to clearly understand the value our fancy technology brings to the business.
A new definition of serious games
I don’t have a perfect definition of serious games, but here is a more inclusive attempt:

Serious Games: The application of gaming technology,
process, and design to the solution of problems faced by businesses and other

Serious games promote the transfer and cross fertilization of game development knowledge and techniques in traditionally non-game markets such as training, product design, sales, marketing, etc.
I want to see a 3D application headlining the next Serious Games Summit. Serious games is still young and flexible. This is our chance to show the world that there is more to serious games than rebranded FPSs. There is more than 2D city planning games or mathlete shooters. Let’s start talking about the wide array of intractable business problems and how we are solving them using our flexible and powerful set of game development tools.

The broad definition of serious games will grow into multi-billion dollar markets and will fundamental change how businesses and governments operate. As developers who are passionate about serious games, we are one of the few groups that is ideally suited to spread the gospel.

I’m curious to see what path the community will take. Are serious games only about games or are they about the broader application of games and gaming technology?

Take care

Note: These are my views and don’t necessarily reflect Anark’s views. C'est la vie. :-)


  1. Thank you for an alternative view.

    Edward DeBono says that since most of our errors are caused not by errors in logic but errors in perception, that we should construct many more alternative views.

    Redaing the blog I was about to give up, then you reached the intersection diagram.

    I would like to visualize the most pressing serious game (IMHO) that of showing enterprises (and therefore their people) how to make profits instead of losses; accordingly turning failing businesses into successful ones.

    So far while I can see it as a non-linear dynamic complex adaptive system problem, how to to see it as 3D has escaped me.

    This could be because it is much more multi-dimensional or it could be that it is immediately apparent to you.

    If the latter is so, I would be interested in learning how to visualize in such an environment.

  2. I come from the realm of outreach education where I use 3D virtual worlds for informal learning. And I have been thinking about the 3D part of your argument alot lately.

    I think that an application has to allow you to explore it and that you have to be able to move around over time within the 3D space in order to get immersed.

    I am pretty sure there are appropriate degrees of "realism" for different applications; sometimes the immagination wants to fill things in for itself.
    And I think that multi-user is a very important feature that is effecting growth in interest.

    Also, allowing the player/user/subject to modify the game/world/scenario as it goes along offers some interesting opportunities.

    Commercial game developers understand and apply all of these concepts. Now its our turn to get a grasp on how to use them :>)

    All strictly, IMHO.

    Thanks, Margaret

  3. From Martine Parry - martine at kezos dot com
    Came across this blog in my search for more real applications of 'Serious Games' and really do agree with you Danc. We are running a conference called Apply Serious Games and conducting marketing research specifically into this area. Please get in touch if you'd like to take part in the research. Please take a look at the conf site: and let me know if you can help with some good case studies .. and if you'd like to come to London on 25th May... Also, I'd like to invite Anark. Who should I contact?

  4. Another event for who are interested by Serious Games : SERIOUS GAMES SUMMIT EUROPE, 4th december 2006 in Lyon, France. And have a look at this website:!
    If you'd like to come to Lyon, please get in touch: vvega at
    Kind Regards!

  5. Danc,
    Your proposed defintion of Serious Games is very like the one I use. I see the Serious Games space as the repurposing of the tools, techniques, and technologies deleveloped and used in the entertainment (games) industry for other purposes. Admittedly a broad definition, but it foucuses on the technology transfer aspects as opposed to the "game" aspects.