Games get serious

If you think video games are child’s play, meet the growing community of scientists, policy makers, and game developers who beg to differ.

“When the Federation of American Scientists [FAS] assembled a road map for developing educational technology in 2001, we brought in the top learning scientists and asked, ‘How do people learn best?’ In a nutshell, the answer was individualized instruction, encouraging questions, and immediate feedback. We then queried the deans of the leading computer science departments across the country about what types of emerging information technology could implement these recommendations. One of the responses–video and computer games–surprised us. But games are getting remarkably sophisticated. The simulations and graphics are incredible; they feature a lot of artificial intelligence; and you can attack them from many different angles. In short, they do all of the things that the learning scientists told us worked well.”

–Kay Howell, FAS vice president for information technologies projects

Few dare call them games. Not yet, at least. And certainly not in front of those who fund games-related projects. A euphemism like “decision-based simulation” maybe, but rarely a “game.” To many, video and computer games represent an adolescent diversion, a parental annoyance that thwarts homework, chores, and all things productive. So when FAS and others stump for games as an educational or training tool, they begin by stating the problem: “You oversee a very complex system,” or “You want to reach a new audience.” The notion of a game providing the solution comes later. Such is the way when establishing a new medium.

The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars christened them “serious games” four years ago, mobilizing a loose-knit collection of game developers, educational foundations, grassroots organizations, human rights advocates, medical professionals, first responders, homeland security consultants, and assorted others around a common cause. Together–the experts provide the facts, the game developers the technological know-how–they’ve created a nascent industry. Their goal: To convince nonbelievers that games teach just as well as books, film, or any other medium.

“Games let us create representations of how things work in a medium that’s built to do exactly that,” says Ian Bogost, an assistant professor of digital media at the Georgia Institute of Technology and the author of Unit Operations: An Approach to Videogame Criticism. “If you want to explain how a nuclear power plant works in a textbook, you have to demonstrate it with a logical written argument. But with games, the player can literally interact with the model of how a system works.”

The serious games moniker provides a catchall for simulations that transcend traditional video and computer game fodder (gunplay, slick cars, and sports) and delve into heftier issues (responding to genocide, promoting democracy, and training first responders). Already neatly segmented, serious games exist for science, defense, health, conflict resolution, and social change. Their sophistication, target audience, and message vary. FAS developed Immune Attack to allow high school students to experience the challenge of defending the human body against invading antigens; PeaceMaker, a game created by students at Carnegie Mellon University, lets Palestinians and Israelis switch roles to better understand each other’s plight; and the U.N. World Food Programme’s Food Force teaches kids about the difficulties of delivering aid to the developing world.

An industry once solely for twentysomething males by twentysomething males is morphing into something much more relevant. “The serious games field has made a lot of progress,” says James Gee, a professor of learning sciences at the University of Wisconsin and author of What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy. “The ideas are beginning to gel, and funding is starting to come in. It’s quite on schedule by any historical antecedent. And yet, it has a lot of challenges.”


“In the mid-1990s, I worked at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy on a number of topics, including climate change. At one point, I was given a fairly simple simulation created by the Dutch government that ran on PCs–the Dutch actually played the simulation in their parliament. I would play this model while eating lunch. Because of its interactivity, I discovered more about climate change in a few hours than I ever learned from any briefing or supercomputer output.”

–David Rejeski, director of the Wilson Center’s Serious Games Initiative

They gather for Serious Games Summits twice a year. In the spring, during the first two days of the week-long Game Developers Conference–GDC to all but the unhip–and again in the fall for a stand-alone event, just outside of Washington, D.C. The GDC attracts thousands of gamers who make the pilgrimage each year from Europe, Asia, and all points in between to ensure that not one gaming development leaves them behind.

This year, 12,500 predominantly T-shirt clad gamers converged in March upon sleepy San Jose for GDC:06. For a few hundred of these convention visitors, the Serious Games Summit in the adjoining Marriott’s second-floor ballroom salons proves curious. Opportunity lurks in these three rooms. Exactly what kind of opportunity, not even those well steeped in serious games quite know. “Like all new things,” Gee says, “what we don’t know is much bigger than what we do know.”

Every now and again, Ben Sawyer, codirector of the Serious Games Initiative, pokes his head into a first-day, early morning “Birds-of-a-Feather Meet-Up,” gauging the room’s tenor. In many ways, it’s Sawyer’s passion and nurturing that fuels the summit’s prevailing sense of opportunity. His zeal for serious games has gone viral. About 45 people attended the first serious games gathering in February 2003 at the Wilson Center. In San Jose, by Sawyer’s count, as many as 500 people will stroll through the Marriott ballrooms. “Ben is the social networking hub,” Gee says. “Sooner or later, he’s the person that everyone will go through.”

Says FAS’s Howell, “Ben taught me to look in the mirror every morning and say, ‘I’m not a gamer. If I’m going to build a game, I need to find a person who knows how to build games and not pretend that I know how to do it.'”

Sawyer certainly didn’t invent serious games. In the early nineteenth century, the Prussian military pioneered the use of scaled miniatures for war-gaming. Chris Crawford’s Balance of Power–a computer game simulating Cold War brinkmanship that challenged players to avoid initiating a nuclear war–achieved some commercial success in the 1980s. And in the 1990s, the U.S. military developed tactical training simulations that it later marketed as highly successful video games with titles such as America’s Army and Close Combat: First to Fight. But it was Sawyer, along with Rejeski, who formulated serious gaming into a viable, recognizable niche. “What we did was brand something that was happening, get everybody talking about it in the same way, and draw some attention to it,” Sawyer says.

First, they crafted a manifesto of sorts, a 2002 white paper entitled “Serious Games: Improving Public Policy Through Game-Based Learning and Simulation,” which Rejeski commissioned and Sawyer wrote. Drawing upon his experiences working on Virtual U, a game the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation released in 2000 to train higher education administrators, Sawyer outlined why stodgy simulations and models could use a makeover. “Any casual observer who has seen someone interact with a computer or video game can easily understand how games can quickly captivate their audience,” he wrote.

Sawyer wanted those in the policy community to understand that games harness people’s inherent competitive instincts, presenting players with multiple outcomes and compelling them to discover and develop strategies to succeed. “Gaming is by no means a replacement to existing model and simulation building processes and practices, but it has tangible advantages that ultimately could result in wider, more flexible, and more versatile products. To ignore these contributions wholesale will directly affect the ability for any simulation or model to reach its full potential.”

Next, Sawyer and Rejeski went about building a community. With money from the Sloan Foundation, they held a small gathering–comprised of a multifarious mix of archetypal bureaucrats and gamers–in Washington. From there, they assembled a website and listserv. They quickly found that a disconnected community already existed, which included Gee and some colleagues at the University of Wisconsin and Howell and FAS President Henry Kelly. “People came out of the woodwork,” Rejeski says. “The idea that you could do something else with this medium had occurred to them, but they figured they were the only ones thinking like this.”

Far from it. Hence, as the serious games gospel spread, the discipline rapidly multiplied. All of which helps explain the presence of the couple hundred onlookers from the commercial gaming industry during the two-day slate of roundtables, lectures, and meet-ups in San Jose. After almost four years, they’d heard enough; now they wanted to determine for themselves how they might fit into the burgeoning industry taking form in these hotel ballroom salons. “They sense they shouldn’t take their eyes off of it,” Sawyer says. “They don’t want to wake up in five years and go, ‘We just let $20 million slip through the cracks!'”


“On my last trip to Ukraine, I showed the game version of A Force More Powerful to some activists who’d been very active in the Orange Revolution. One of the guys couldn’t believe it. He said, ‘We really need this!’

“Since the Orange Revolution, Kiev has become a collecting point for Georgians, Belarusians, Azerbaijanis, Kyrgyz, and Uzbeks trying to learn about nonviolent strategy for their own purposes. To help train the leadership circles of these various movements, my Ukrainian friend has been using the game, which is tremendously gratifying.”

–Steve York, documentary filmmaker and newly minted game producer

Welcome to Grbac, Slovopaknia, a fictional city in a fictional nation in a fictional world that exists only in A Force More Powerful: The Game of Nonviolent Strategy. In this (not so) mythical place, a classic strongman, the menacingly named Mayor Gavrilovic, rules with typical strongman aplomb, cultivating corruption and squelching dissent. Such is the backdrop for “Corruption is Stealing,” one of ten historically inspired game scenarios in A Force More Powerful, as Gavrilovic imprisons a local university student for ridiculing him in the school newspaper.

The mission, per the game’s instructions: Lead a “stunned and disorganized student movement” to spring the incarcerated student from jail, build an anticorruption coalition to force Gavrilovic’s resignation, and triumph in the citywide mayoral race held thereafter; all the while, achieving these objectives without the use of force–employing nonviolent tactics such as fundraising, hunger strikes, and fraternizing with neutral/sympathetic parties.

The game derives from a three-hour PBS documentary series by the same name–directed and produced by York–that chronicled how nonviolence works as a fulcrum for democratic change. After it aired in 2000, York and the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict (ICNC), a nonprofit organization founded by an executive producer and adviser of the series, began receiving correspondence from people all over the world describing how they incorporated the series into their own nonviolence training. Wanting to provide them with a proper training tool, ICNC decided to transform the film’s themes into a computer game.

Last February, after four years of development, York’s production company, ICNC, and BreakAway Games, a top serious game developer based in Maryland, jointly released the game-version of A Force More Powerful, complete with a 116-page instruction manual. The game was produced with the close consultation of Ivan Marovic, a leader–and serendipitously, a longtime gamer–in the student resistance movement that helped topple Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. “If we were going to do something that would be useful to movements, activists, and strategists, it had to be done responsibly,” York says. “It wasn’t going to be simplistic or dumbed-down; it was going to have a steep learning curve.”

The best serious games always do. Even if the gameplay is simple and intuitive, the strategies require thoughtful choices that often yield difficult consequences. In A Force More Powerful, pursuing too brazen tactics too quickly, no matter how peaceful, can lead to the death or imprisonment of opposition members. The game then ends, with the push for democratic change suppressed. Extra lives don’t exist in serious games.

Likewise, in Pax Warrior, a blend of documentary film and game that places high school and college students in the role of the head U.N. peacekeeper during the 1994 Rwandan genocide, “winning” is relative. No player stops the genocide. Hamstrung by the same historical constraints that faced Lt. Gen. Roméo Dallaire, the actual commander of the U.N. peacekeeping mission to Rwanda at the time, the students try to save as many lives as possible given the circumstances. “Pax teaches you how good intentions are not enough,” says Andreas Ua’Siaghail, the game’s co-creator. “It tests an individual’s valor in a historical context.”

That’s partly the value of serious games–to allow users to fail again and again without real-world repercussions–what Rejeski calls “failing softly.” It’s why the U.S. military understands the utility of games so intuitively. The military reasons that if soldiers lose fake lives in simulations, it better hones their ability to survive on the real battlefield. Similar thinking is now taking hold in firehouses, police stations, and hospitals–the frontlines in the event of a natural disaster or terrorist attack.

Firefighters are particularly well-suited for game-based training, according to Jesse Schell, an assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University’s Entertainment Technology Center (ETC). Their age generally skews young; they train aggressively, meaning they’re open-minded to new training techniques that could save their lives; and they possess the time to train. “Nurses make rounds and cops walk the beat, but firefighters hang around the firehouse waiting for something to happen,” says Schell, the former creative director of the Disney Virtual Reality Studio and the CEO of his own independent game studio in Pittsburgh.

For nearly four years, Schell, along with other ETC faculty and students, has worked closely with both the Pittsburgh and New York City fire departments to craft a multiplayer game called Hazmat: Hotzone. “Firefighters train for fires,” Schell says. “They don’t necessarily prepare for colorless, odorless toxins. And when they were training for it, it was in the classroom and the data wasn’t sticking.”

Hazmat: Hotzone puts them on the scene, forcing quick decisions and testing their assumptions in a safe, virtual environment. One firefighter plays the role of incident commander, while the others “responding” to the scene individually log into clustered computer stations, communicating with each other via radio. Then an instructor, who sets the particular hazmat scenario, alters the variables at will. An initial gaming test the ETC crew tried out on actual firefighters featured a sarin attack in a shopping mall. Almost immediately, a cyber firefighter collapsed.

“I thought if I could see, it was safe to go in,” the firefighter controlling the character told his instructor.

“Not when you have suspicion of a hazmat,” the instructor responded. “In that case, you should be looking for other tips–like all the unconscious people on the scene.”

“It became clear to us that the real value we could give firefighters was an opportunity to try lots of different scenarios with lots of different parameters over and over again,” Schell says. “That trains them to go through the right thought process.”


“The government is spending money like water and has this problem of training first responders. So we thought, ‘For a couple million dollars, we can develop Hazmat: Hotzone for every firehouse in the country free of charge. I bet we can make that happen.’ No such luck. After going to Homeland Security for the fourth time, someone at Homeland finally said, ‘You’re going about this all wrong. The government does not fund universities for the production and distribution of software; the government funds research and experiments. We will give grants to people who want to buy your product. But that means you have to secure your own funding to get the thing built.'”

–Jesse Schell

Unlike Hazmat: Hotzone, not every serious game costs millions of dollars to produce. But their niche-specific nature considerably limits the consumer pool, as the audience for some games might number only in the hundreds. Although Sawyer believes a larger commercial market for serious games will develop, the early returns suggest that their crossover appeal remains limited. To wit, A Force More Powerful will ship 4,000 copies in its first six months of release. A point of comparison: Halo 2, one of the most popular commercial games, sold 2.4 million copies within the first 24 hours it hit retail shelves in 2004. “We’re still a rounding error,” Sawyer admitted in San Jose.

So Schell and others trudge to Washington, only to find Capitol Hill hesitant. Congress has heard pledges of revolutionary educational and training software before: “Every student will have an electronic tutor!” went the refrain not so long ago. But often, the proselytizers of such revamped learning never delivered on their promises. “Why should we believe you now?” governmental staffers quizzed FAS President Kelly when he originally approached them, circa 2000, about investing more federal funding into educational games. His answer: “The problem turned out to be harder than expected, but the technology has matured to the point where there’s a lot of opportunity for progress.”

The shift to more adult subject matter in some high-profile commercial game titles hasn’t helped either. The Grand Theft Auto series, which sparked outcry among elected officials owing to the games’ heavy dose of sex and violence, has emerged as the public face of the gaming industry. Such political rhetoric reminded Rejeski of comparable debates that occurred during television’s adolescence. So he furthered the parallel himself. Using the Corporation for Public Broadcasting as the paradigm, in April he posted an article on, a website for video game developers, calling for the establishment of a Corporation for Public Gaming. “Noncommercial television floundered, despite millions of dollars of investment by the Ford Foundation, until the government stepped in and created a viable and long-lasting alternative,” he wrote. “With similar vision and foresight, and a relatively small amount of funding, this could happen with video and computer games.”

Rejeski’s proposal: A $15 million annual investment for three years that’s dispersed to games that “inform, enlighten, and enrich the public.” After the third year, the program would be reviewed and “continued, modified, or terminated” as seen fit. Most importantly, it would specifically allocate funding to study whether serious games are living up to their expectations–quantifiable proof that should help loosen congressional purse strings. “We just haven’t done those kinds of studies,” says Howell, who helped FAS push for legislation, introduced in both the House and Senate, that would also spur more federal dollars for serious games.

The idea hit. “I’d say 95 percent of the response was somewhere between positive and euphoric,” Rejeski says. It burned through the blogosphere and received coverage from National Public Radio and BBC Radio. Better still, the notion of a Corporation for Public Gaming soothed the psyche of a serious games community that Rejeski sensed was growing disenchanted. “It was a reminder of the promise and the possibilities that are still unrealized,” he says. “The serious games community has become too tactical and introspective. The spark and vision from two or three years ago is missing. But the opportunity is still there, and now is the time to do it.”

At the Serious Games Summit, Sawyer saves the introspection for the second day of the conference. On the first day, the spark still seems apparent. The game developers and various experts in attendance quibble a bit–the experts don’t understand games, the developers don’t respect the facts. But it’s a creative rivalry that makes for better, livelier games. Most of the day’s sessions brim with attentive audiences, forcing many in the overflow crowd to sit on the floor.

But like Rejeski, Sawyer is attuned to the throng he helped assemble. He too knows the money question lingers and hears the criticism from those in and out of the serious games community that hype dominates the proceedings. Most of all, however, the breakthrough hit doesn’t exist yet. And until it does, “you won’t have a lot of consensus,” says Gee, who classifies early standard-bearers such as A Force More Powerful as better than most serious games, but still not of commercial quality.

Shortly before lunch on the second day, Sawyer confronts all such concerns, conducting an hour-long panel with Gee and Kelly–entitled “What’s Wrong with Serious Games?”–that deconstructs the ills of the serious games space.

“We’ve been given a Maserati before we’ve been given a driver’s license,” Kelly opens.

“We have to evaluate the learning systems that games generate,” Gee continues.

“Are we just apologists for Grand Theft Auto?” reads one Sawyer slide.

With the purging complete, Sawyer returns to the stump, convinced as ever that such squabbles merely indicate the discipline’s growth and maturity and that games represent the future. “People are getting a growing sense that gaming is a very powerful medium,” he says passionately, a few weeks after San Jose. “As they start to think about that, they’re willing to invest more time to get down that road. Once they’ve traveled a few miles, you can get them to jump at it.”

Posted in Uncategorized

Leave a Reply