Serious Games

Predrag Boksic | perceptron
Games have been on my mind more than usual lately, both because of Jane McGonigal's new book Reality is Broken, and Bruce Sterling's review of The Art of Game Design. Games are fascinating because players perform pointless tasks that under any other circumstances would be considered work, and master arcane skills, all in the name of fun. If the energy put into playing games could be harnessed to external reality, whether economic or political, it'd be like building a social perpetual motion machine.

At the Prevail Project, we've been throwing around a few ideas for games. Games are undoubtedly educational, every game must at least teach players how to play the game. The military is investing heavily in games, and in fact, through Axis & Allies and Dungeons & Dragons, many modern games are able to trace their ancestry to Kriegspiel, the war game of the Prussian General Staff. The experiences of games can be immersive, epic, transformative. But aside from warfare, educational games exist in a ghetto of boring vocabulary flashcards and math drills. How can we use games to tell people stories about the world in a way that translates into becoming better citizens? Fate of the World is one such game, where players must solve global crises, learning about energy, climate change, and balancing political constituencies.

Another side of games is socialization. The typical charge leveled against gaming is that it's an anti-social activity that takes a person out of their community. McGonigal presents research saying that gamers are more cooperative that the average person, and that games provide a social space that introverts feel comfortable in. Schell in The Art of Game Design has an interesting anecdote about designing an MMO (Massively Multiplayer Game) for Disney where the mechanics encouraged cooperation and politeness, leading to a better player culture. Multiplayer gaming with people you know can be a great way to bond. The question is how to make the social aspect of games more real, and not 'thin' connections that draw a player away from the real world.

The last area of games that we're interested in, and on which relatively little research has been done, is the use of games to help collective decision-making. If I may get theoretical, there are basically three ways we collectively make decisions. The first is democracy; we vote for some people on the promise that they'll do right by us. The second is expertise; we delegate questions to people who claim to know something, and do what they say. The third is economic; we pay people to do things we want, are rewarded for doing useful things in turn. All of these methods have problems. Democracies are slow to make and implement decisions (“You can always count on Americans to do the right thing - after they've tried everything else.”--Winston Churchill). It's hard to evaluate the advice of experts, and expert advice is rarely followed, and the economy is in thrall to next-quarter thinking, and many people find their jobs (if they're lucky enough to have a job) pointless and alienating. But maybe the principles of game design, experiences, flow, the right mixture of emotions and incentives, can be used to improve upon the money economy. If there was a platform for people to experiment with various forms of currency, reputation, and reward, then a diversity of options might help us discover a way to collectively make decisions that is effective, legitimate, and most of all, fun to participate in.


  1. The part about collective decision-making reminded me about a massively multiplayer Pong game I briefly played once. Basically, each paddle was controlled by averaging the position of a dozen or so players (though no reason it couldn't scale larger). It was interesting but not particularly fun. Unfortunately it looks like the links to it are broken.

    I think having a job would suck a lot less if it was more like a game. In particular, the rewards for actually performing well are nearly non-existent, in my experience. I think it would be great that when you receive your paycheck, the number on the check would flash in bright colors and a CHA-CHING or jackpot sound would play loudly. Of course, it would help to be paid in cold hard cash instead of a number on a check.

    As much as I hate the Trophy/Achievement stuff in games these days, they could be useful motivators at work. Ideally you'd have some automated way to hand out these minor rewards for tasks completed or milestones met.

    I'm reminded of a game that encouraged members of a household to do chores by awarding RPG-like experience points and levels. Google tells me it is http://www.chorewars.com/ . In fact, they even mention household or office. The weakness there is that it is on the honor system. As with any social reward program, it only works as long as enough people care. So in the typical small household, you really would need to get everyone on board. But I could see something like that working better if it was encouraged at a company, with some slight supervisor oversight.

    It is especially interesting to me that massively multiplayer games, especially the more hardcore ones (Everquest, EVE Online), do strongly resemble a job. There was a time when my friends and I did put serious hours a week into such games, but as tends to happen, we stopped when we got actual jobs. For me, the big difference between these games and actual work is that they can be quit and played at any time. They are entirely voluntary and unnecessary in a way that actual jobs aren't. Conversely, for the people who make money off the games (gold farmers), playing becomes real work and not fun.

    Although I love games, that's the reason I've never been interested in working in game design or testing. Being forced to do something is a sure way to make me hate it. I guess the real trick with any Serious Games is to convince the player that they shouldn't be taken too seriously.

    Thank you for the link to The Art of Game Design, though I found that Wired review to be pretty insulting to gamers. I also recommend Raph Koster's A Theory of Fun for Game Design.

    -Zomboe (since there are already enough Michaels on here!)

  2. Chorewars, yes, that's the one! Alternative economies are really cool (McGonigal and her husband use Chorewars gold to decide who controls the radio while driving), but you're spot on with the fundamental problem that a real economy requires some form of administrative oversight, ranging from 'Assistant Manager sets up awards and tracks compliance' to 'full-blown Panopticon (see Stross-Glass House).' It's unclear how well the system maps onto the cash economy, or how rigorous the security needs to be to prevent cheating.

    Both Schell and McGoignal put the right to quit at the cornerstone of why games are fun. Certainly, something like "no dessert until you beat Halo on Legendary" would make Halo really unfun. So managing the right to quit with the requirement that jobs get done on time under stressful circumstances would be hard.

    As it relates to games and jobs, games provide constant feedback about how you're doing, as opposed to jobs, which do feedback about once a year, and make that a terrifying and fraught process. Thoughts on using something like www.plusoneme.com to supplement/supplant traditional job evaluations?

    I'll definitely look into Koster's "A Theory of Fun". Bruce Sterling gets paid to be snarky, but he is dead on in that for a 19 year old who loves games and doesn't know why, it is the *perfect* book. Pros may find it less valuable.