Where’s the Fun in Serious Games?: Keys to Developing an Effective and Engaging Game with Planned Positive Impact – Dr. Bradley Tanner

SERIOUS GAMES -> East Coast Games Conference 04/19/17 Wed @ 1130 am – 1230 pm – ROOM – 305A

“Serious games” and “games for health” often fail. Instead of the fun, challenging, and engaging experience seen in first-person, strategy, MOBA, MMO RPG, or cooperative games, players of “serious” games are expected to accomplish a “real” goal, say an educational or health outcome. The experiences are often lonely, passive, and isolating single-player experiences. They often deploy a “gamification” strategy focused on earning points, badges, and ranking on a leader board. Players quickly see the difference between a gamified education experience (“you ate the right food, you got 5 points!”) vs. a real immersive multi-player game – and reject it or complete it only because it is required. Academic support for the effectiveness of “serious” games has been unimpressive and enthusiasm for developing such a game is fading.

This either/or state of affairs (fun vs. useful) is misguided. Outside of games we engage in a plethora of enjoyable activities which are also good for us. The list of activities from playing sports, to brainstorming new ideas, to cooking, to pottery, to running goes on an on. And that list also includes playing “fun” games which have been shown to impact memory, attention, connectedness, mood, and skills related to 3D modeling, collaboration, planning, and more.

Instead of the above “education first” strategy, the designer of a game with planned positive impact should first imagine a game WITHOUT an education, health or other serious objective. As the game design evolves the team identifies opportunities to inject meaningful impact into the experience. For example, since games already have objectives and goals; the goal can be aligned with acquiring a specific (and useful) skill or a healthy behavior.

As the design process proceeds, standard game design and development strategies are followed including user experience, and opportunities for choice, exploration, self-expression, and creativity. As design standards require, the game emphasizes a flow state matching challenge with skills, rapid feedback, and expansion of social connections through communication with other players. There is no reason a planned positive impact should interfere; instead, it should give the game focus. In the design, multi-player is essential for the game to tap the ability of multi-player to enhance enthusiasm and engagement, reinforce skills, engage emotions, and provide coaching and support.

Continuing the example, imagine a game with planned positive impact of health improvement through lifestyle change. Players practice lifestyle change by counteracting and replacing lifestyle choices contributing to excessive weight and poor cardiovascular health; specifically inactivity, decreased exercise, and nutritional choices. As the game avatar takes on challenges the real-world player is test driving difficult yet necessary lifestyle changes.

In the game, players succeed by practicing skills and countering unhealthy habits: They

  1. navigate through the challenges to lifestyle change,
  2. recognize food, environment, social situation cues, and npcs that challenge their avatar,
  3. counteract those cues in themselves by rejecting some choices,
  4. identify and implement changes in lifestyle to offset current lifestyle choices.
  5. provide and receive advice and motivation as they collaborate with real life co-players.