How videogames help us understand the world – Serious Games Conference kicks off in Joburg

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Can games be used for good? Of course they can, and they are. And you may not realise this but the world’s first International Conference on Serious Games is underway at the Quest Conference Centre in Vanderbijlpark, and naturally we’re in attendance.

Dr Ernest W Adams, founder of the International Games Developers Association, has just wrapped up his keynote speech which had a lot of fascinating insights into what serious games are, and what developers who are making them should aim for in both their pitch to clients and in the final product.

A serious game, according to Dr Adams is one that is fun to play, but which has an underlying message. In essence, serious games are designed to convey ideas, raise awareness on serious issues and help players engage their brains in such a way that they learn while doing something enjoyable.

He cited several games that he personally learned from, including 1989’s Balance of Power, a geopolitical simulation game that showed him a lot about how the relationships between countries worked. Balance of Power’s aim was to gain prestige by supporting countries friendly to the player and destabilising those that don’t, and he found he learned the most by playing from the perspective of countries he was not familiar with.

As an American with American views, he discovered quickly that he’d been lied to about how dangerous the USSR was. Despite scare mongering, the game revealed to him that the USA was in a far better position with wealthy allies and the USSR faced severe sanctions and only had relatively poor and under-equipped countries like Vietnam and Cuba in their corner. The game showed him a completely different perspective that he wasn’t getting from his countrymen, and he learned through with something that he had fun playing.

Huge potential

And that’s the potential today’s serious games have: to show people things that are both interesting and relevant to real life through “interactive experiences” disguised as games. The challenge for designers, he says, is balancing the fun with the message, and ensuring there isn’t too much of either that the other aspect gets lost on the player.

Adams mentioned “stealth learning” as a very effective way to convey a specific message in a serious game. He said Lufthansa has a game called Virtual Pilot that challenges gamers to fly to the designated city with increasingly fewer aids. They say “Land at city X”, and all you have to go on is a map of the region showing red dots (cities) within country boundaries, and you must choose the right city to proceed. Success then removes the dots representing the cities, and you must guess where the city in question is, and you’re awarded more points the closer your chosen spot is to the actual location. The final level removes country boundaries as well, stretching your memory and knowledge to the maximum.

While a fun game in its own right, what you don’t realise as you play is that you now know what cities Lufthansa flies to as the game doesn’t show cities the airline doesn’t service. Sneaky!

Tips for Serious Games developers

Dr Adams also shared his insights on what a serious games designer needs to do to ensure their game is both effective, fun, and to the client’s expectations drawing on his 25 years of experience within the games industry. Here are the highlights:

  • Find a problem to solve and be clear on how you plan to solve it rather than just dream up a concept and hope that someone will want to pay you to develop it. Decide what it is you’re trying to convey and figure out how you’re going to convey it through simulation.
  • Know your domain. Study, study, study the subject matter.
  • Establish how the actions the player will take will lead to changes in the game world that will bring the core message across.
  • Reward understanding.

Managing your client’s expectations is incredibly important. He recommends telling them clearly and up front what sort of game X money buys and using charts to illustrate the point. Be clear that R10 000 isn’t going to buy a 3D extravaganza.

Make your game fun, but not so fun that the player gets wrapped up in playing that they lose sight of the actual objective or message.

Lastly, when pitching your idea to a potential client who could possibly be quite fun-averse (a fairly common occurrence as entities interested in serious games are often very serious people), he advises developers to avoid using the term altogether but still be sure to include it in the actual game.

If you have any questions for Dr Adams, he can be reached via his website.

Deon du Plessis

Deon du Plessis

Deon got his first taste of PC gaming at the tender age of 11 when his father bought an 8088 XT, ostensibly to "help him with his homework". Instead, it introduced him to Leisure Suit Larry, King Graham, Sonny Bonds and many more, and Deon has been a PC gamer and hardware enthusiast ever since. He landed his first professional writing gig in 2006 at a prestigious local PC magazine, a very happy happenstance as he got to write for a living about things he loves - tech, PCs, gaming, and everything in between. He's been writing about it all ever since, and loves every minute of it.