As a specific concept, serious games have been drifting around the design sphere since at least the turn of the millennium. Yet for all the hype, and all of the yearly GDC conferences on the subject, the theory has had some trouble gaining traction as more than an academic or industrial curiosity.
According to Ben Sawyer of Digitalmill and Peter Smith of the University of Central Florida, some of the problem in the serious games movement is a general haziness as to exactly what serious games are, and are for.
Sawyer and Smith observe that the traditional view of serious games is vague exactly because of its specificity. “Often when we see people talk about serious games, we see them talking about them in a sort of narrow way,” Peter Smith mused.
Yet, at the same time, “Everyone has their own name for what serious games should be called. When they’re using these terms, they’re still talking about serious games… It’s not that these words are wrong. It’s just, they’re trying to categorize things. And there’s nothing categorical about any of these names.”
Nose in the Trees
“Too often,” read a quote attributed to a certain Sawyer in 2007, “'serious games' is defined only as that which the definer does!” To broaden the popular conception of serious games, Smith and Sawyer decided to build a taxonomy, incorporating and organizing everything that serious games can be – the end goal being a more holistic and functional overview of the theory and application of the movement.
One of the chief concerns was to define serious games not as a genre but as a perspective, leading to specific usage models. As an example, the speakers offered Katamari Damacy
creator Keita Takashi, and his application of his game design sensibilities in the more-recent construction of playgrounds.
As part of that shift in definition, Sawyer said, it is helpful to recognize that serious games aren’t all about original dedicated development, but about the use of resources to constructive real-world ends. “A lot of people see the Serious Games industry as this virgin development market. But we want to show that there’s something more to it. So if you’re using a Wii game, you are getting some exercise.” Much of it is a matter of perspective; how you apply the tools at hand.
The Tools Don't Make the Artist
“Serious games when they started out were conceived as this completely non-commercial thing,” explained Sawyer. Today, serious games can be seen as a reconception of the old edutainment chestnut. Even commercial off-the-shelf games like Half-Life
can be repurposed for education, if creatively applied.
Serious games can also have a research element; the results that come up in Google Image Search are partially based on a multiplayer image-ranking “game”. Games can be used in the production of other media, whether through direct playing or through creative reuse of hardware or software, such as the trend for DJs to use classic Game Boys as instruments.
The basic concept of a serious game, the speakers insist, must be the use of game hardware and software as applications for life, rather than merely as diversions in and of themselves. Within that scope lies limitless practical potential to use video games for the betterment of the individual, yet much depends on the creativity and motivation of the end user, to make that crucial MacGuyver-esque shift of perspective. Not everything can be listed on the box, and a tool can only do so much on its own.