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Three Perspectives on Serious Games

At the end of last year I was invited to give a talk at Creative Mornings Utrecht on the theme “education”. I figured it would be a nice opportunity to share the things I’ve learned over the past 5+ years of practicing applied game design. I tried to connect a wide range of sources with examples of how I’ve applied them in my work at Hubbub. The result is a pretty good reflection of our current position on serious games, games for change and game-based learning. So in addition to the video, the slides, and the list of sources, I thought I’d blog a rough transcript of the talk here.


A summary for the impatient: Most often, when we talk about using games for learning we talk about how people learn by playing games. I propose there are two additional perspectives that are equally promising. One is the learning that happens when people change existing games. The other is the learning that happens when people make new games. For each of these three perspectives I give examples of how we approach them in our own practice. These approaches should be equally useful and inspirational to designers working outside of the field of games.

Serious Games and Games for Change

To start things off, let me introduce Bycatch. It’s a card game about remote warfare and drone surveillance. The game features a novel mechanic that simulates surveillance. You use your camera phone to take pictures of hands of cards of opponents. Each card contains a picture of a person. At any point in the game one such person is suspected of terrorism. It is your goal to eliminate that person. To determine where to strike, you make use of the surveillance you’ve gathered. A lot of things can go wrong when you try to take a picture of a hand of cards. Those things are an analogy for the things that can and do go wrong in actual drone warfare.

We describe Bycatch as an issue game. We prefer not to call it a serious game. The label implies only a specific class of games can teach things.1

We also dislike the label “games for change”. Such games are typically commissioned by institutions. As a result, they usually can’t challenge those same institutions. And therefore they usually lack teeth.2

In an issues game, the issues explored are modeled by the game’s mechanics. As you play, you are made complicit in the issue’s dynamics. And that’s it. The aim of issue games is not to convince you of a particular course of action towards solving the issue. As a result, there is a lot of room for critical, ethical and performative play.3

1. Learning by Playing Games

Games are simulations of experiences. Their meaning is created as much by what they include as by what they leave out.4 From this perspective, what we learn when we play games is what they are “made of” – procedural systems. The fun in games emerges from learning and mastering such systems.5 In this talk I call this the game perspective. It centers on games as designed artefacts.

At Hubbub, when we design games for learning from this game perspective, we start by looking for the activities that make up the subject matter. We then translate these activities into game mechanics.

For example, in Beestenbende, the goal was to make a game that could be played in a science museum, which would teach people something about the scientific method. We selected the museum’s cabinet of curiosities as the space where the game would take place. The goal of the game is to conclusively prove that a particular animal is a member of a particular group. Players do this by taking photos of animal features on display in the cabinet. In this way, the cabinet again becomes the tool it once was in the natural sciences. And the scientific method is translated into game actions.

This game perspective is fine, and it’s probably the most common way of thinking about how serious games work. But it is important to remember it is only one of several perspectives. For example, we can shift our focus from games as artefacts to the importance of play.

2. Learning by Changing Games

“Play is free movement within a more rigid system.” It is the way in which we become fully human. It is expressive and a way of engaging with the world. Play matters.

When we look at games through the lens of play, all of a sudden individual people matter. They complete the work started by the designer. I believe players should be allowed to adapt a game to their needs. Only when players can change, a play community can form around it. Players need to be able to adapt games to their needs. At this point a game becomes a cultural practice.

From this play perspective people learn when they can change the game they are playing. The act of adaptation is the source of learning. Elsewhere, I have called this design through underspecification. Nowadays I like to use the term flux dogma. “Allow all constants to become variables.”6 Let players change and make up their own rules.

We did this in Beestenbende by deliberately not encoding a significant part of the game’s rules in the software.7 As a result, players can negotiate amongst themselves about how best to play. We’ve seen Beestenbende players give each other a break for example, when they felt the game was too hard and they wanted to move on.

The whole design of Camparc was and continues to be an exercise in underspecification. We resisted the urge to design a specific game around these huge panoramic camera balls and in stead approach them as a problem of toy design: Making them support a wide range of play activities, many of which we can’t foresee.

3. Learning by Making Games

To talk about the final perspective, I first need to talk about why many people are interested in using games for learning. This is because they use computers, and computers are really good at counting. The thought is that if we make a game for change, and we use computers, we should be able to measure the change. But not all things worth changing are measurable. In addition, it is probably impossible to conclusively prove their usefulness. So if you ask me, this line of reasoning is a dead end.

But making games is a way for me to think through things, to dive deep into topics I find interesting. And I enjoy teaching other people to do the same. In fact I think making games about things is a way to get better at learning in general.

Game design is iterative design. It is crafting systems that are unpredictable when inhabited by humans. You are confronted with many of the challenges we are facing as humans in the world today. So game design is a very useful skill and way of looking at the world.8

So making games is useful too. This is the design perspective.

At Hubbub, the way we do this is by inventing quick-and-dirty, spontaneous, improv-style workshops that are all about iterating like crazy. One recent example is the workshop we ran at ThingsCon Amsterdam. We challenged participants to invent new smart products through play. They were asked to imagine household appliances as characters, and to improvise short stories around them.

Towards a New Practice of Playful Design

So those are three perspectives on serious games. By playing games, we learn systems. By changing games, we challenge systems. And by making games, we craft systems.

It is important to point out that the ways we do this are just as useful outside of applied game design. Many designed things can and will be played with. If you’re interested in facilitating this, consider doing the following on your next project: (1) start by focusing your designing on enabling activities, (2) allow people to change aspects of the thing in meaningful ways, and (3) invite your audience to design with you.

As you can tell from this talk I think much of conventional applied game designed is flawed in one way or another. However I remain very excited about designing for play. I think we can take useful elements from the practice of designing serious games, gamification and game-based learning. We can leave behind the parts that are holding us back. And if we combine the end-result with a particular framing of design-as-invention, we can shift any design practice towards a more playful one.

  1. Ian Bogost has written at length about the shortcomings of thinking in terms of serious games and games for change. His book Persuasive Games is a good place to start. []
  2. At TEDxUtrecht I used the term generative games to talk about the need for serious games and games for change to allow room for outcomes not predetermined by their designers. []
  3. Earlier I blogged about how we use the issue game approach in Bycatch to let people experience goat rodeo. []
  4. This idea of games as incomplete, subjective simulations also comes from Ian Bogost. It is first introduced in the challenging but rewarding Unit Operations. []
  5. There is no better single source than Raph Koster’s Theory of Fun for an explanation of how a particular kind of fun offered by games emerges from learning. []
  6. For a head-spinning deep dive into flux dogma check out Music & Games as Shifting Possibility Spaces by David Kanaga. []
  7. The best example of a digital/physical game hybrid that I keep returning to is Johann Sebastian Joust, of course. []
  8. My work on games has lead to a continuing interest in the theory of decision-making and the work of military strategist John Boyd. []
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