Hubbub has gone into hibernation.

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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