The Case for Serious Games: a response to the JCSG2016 Keynote Panel

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At the second Joint Conference on Serious Games, moderator Catherine Beavis asked a keynote panel of invited domestic and international guests, ‘Is the term Serious Games an inhibitor to our wider acceptance and does it really capture everything we do?’

There was some interesting dissent and debate between panelists Tracy Fullerton, Jon Weinbren, Victor Lim-Fei, Sara de Freitas, and Ben Schouten around whether the term ‘Serious Games’ was relevant, appropriate, or worth keeping. Somewhat disappointingly—as teaching staff in Australia’s first Bachelor of Serious Games program—the general consensus was that ‘serious’, as a descriptor, was vague, limiting, and undermined the credibility of the discipline. The term ‘game’, too, was challenged, though the case for its exclusion was a little less clear cut.

While the more specific arguments for discarding Serious Games as a label will be dissected and challenged here, it’s important to note that this panel was still a worthwhile, insightful, and provocative discussion; the purpose of an academic conference is not to create an echo chamber, but to challenge, create, and disseminate new ideas and knowledge.

Alternatives to ‘Serious Games’

One of the more salient suggestions was ‘Applied Games’, a choice perhaps influenced by the presence of Applied Linguistics academic Victor Lim-Fei. His point—that hypothetically talking to colleagues about his work in ‘Serious Linguistics’ would be scoffed at—was meant to further illustrate the apparent childishness of the term ‘serious’. And certainly, Applied Games sounds less like a desperate attempt to garner credibility. But the initial panel discussion topic asked whether ‘Serious Games’ captured the full extent of the work done in the field, and Applied Games, ironically, excludes many of the current applications of Serious Games in favour of a focus on formalised educational contexts.

A hypothetical Bachelor of Applied Games program implies not only a lack of informal applications, but also a lack of actual development training. (Avoiding these issues might result in the awkwardly titled Bachelor of Developing Applied Games.) The term also suggests a reduced scope to ‘Serious Games’ that games like Never Alone <Kisima Inŋitchuŋa> (Upper One Games, 2014) are outside of, since cultural preservation is not the typical purview of videogames or other entertainment media. This feels regressive; using Applied Games would force those who work in areas outside its scope through the same rebranding process, now inexplicably distinct from yet still related to non-identical, formal application-focused uses for videogames.

A solution may be to delineate several distinct fields, including those mentioned by the panel: Applied Games, Educational Games, Meaningful Games, etc. However, this approach belies the interdisciplinary nature of Serious Games, a strength of the discipline. Categorising types of Serious Games in this way excludes those who straddles the boundaries of these areas, or the boundaries between Serious Games and other disciplines. Which seems to actively contradict the explicit benefit even detractors of the term could agree upon. Sara de Freitas said that one benefit to Serious Games was having a unifying term to bring those disparate research fields together. An event called the ‘Joint Conference on Educational Games’ would exclude those developing and researching Serious Games that are not explicitly educational, and would reduce the impressive diversity that the Joint Conference on Serious Games offered.

Presenting the Bachelor of Serious Games to students and administrative staff has not been without difficulty. With it initially suggested that we adopt the name ‘Bachelor of Gamification’—another label without the scope to fully encapsulate our intent within the program and that carries its own baggage—the question of how we use labels to differentiate ourselves from other game design programs has always been relevant. This differentiation within the academy is important as it succinctly explains how our program differs from those of other institutions whose programs focus more on the development process of games than their transformative effects. This difference is important for prospective students—and for future employers and stakeholders—as it encapsulates the graduate attributes of the program; a shift in name within our discipline immediately invalidates or undermines these students’ qualifications.

Serious Games rely on stakeholders for support, both financially and otherwise. Questioning the foundation of our discipline—the name with which we refer to ourselves—causes those stakeholders to question us. Similarly, changing the name of our discipline causes us to once again become a new, or at least unfamiliar, discipline; this forces us to lose progress in the process of convincing stakeholders of our worth.

Stakeholders

Stakeholders questioning the validity of our discipline may not be an issue for Jon Weinbren, who suggested those who develop Serious Games stop thinking about the opinions of stakeholders entirely. This suggestion contrasts strikingly with a recent discussion had with Well Placed Cactus, a Serious Games studio, whose CEO, Jack Gillespie, suggested the opinions of stakeholders were practically all the studio considered when developing in the Serious Games space. This is primarily due to the lack of funding provided from other sources and the necessity of grants to keep the studio developing.

Even without thinking of the financial impact stakeholders have on the Serious Games industry, it is important to consider their needs when developing games we expect them to use within their contexts of expertise. Approaching teachers or, perhaps more importantly, administrative staff such as principals, with Serious Games that can be used to help provoke learning becomes a difficult task when the needs of those stakeholders were not considered during the development process.

During the workshop ‘The Art and Science of Serious Game Development’, Ariel Marcy spoke about her work developing Serious Games for education. Previously included in the IGDA webinar in June, 2016, Marcy discussed her experience developing ‘Go Extinct!’, as well as a current work-in-progress title. In creating these games, Marcy discovered that starting with educational standards or the curriculum is limiting and that it is easier to begin developing from the ‘big idea’ the game should convey. This, however, does not discount the necessity of testing the game against these standards during quality assurance to identify its usefulness within the relevant learning contexts.

Stakeholders can provide Serious Games developers with contexts in which to create; however, Weinbren also suggested that these contexts do not need to be considered when developing Serious Games. Instead, he indicated that it is the responsibility of practitioners within these contexts to locate games that can be made relevant to their industries within the oversaturated games industry. Implying that practitioners with potentially no experience with games have the expertise, time, or motivation to actively seek and apply Serious Games is presumptuous. This is made an impossible feat with the suggestion that Serious Games, as a specified area of development, be collapsed into the broader industry; how can one search through an endless collection of videogames in order to find a viable—let alone ideal—exemplar?

To be accepted within these industries where Serious Games can make a significant, positive difference, the discipline needs to act according to what these stakeholders require. Thinking we have moved beyond the point of needing to appeal to these stakeholders is idealistic and inaccurate.

This feeds into Weinbren’s comments about revolutionising formal education. Certainly, including games in the education curriculum is something that Serious Games is concerned with. An entire subdiscipline, Game-based Learning, revolves around this concept. But the notion that simply talking to teachers or parents about the potential of games understates the significant role that other stakeholders play in actualising change. Calls for significant revolutions without frameworks or steps to achieve this ring hollow—and this process would be exacerbated without Serious Games research and development providing a foundation and justification for change.

Reclaiming

Early in the panel, Tracy Fullerton talked about the necessity of reclaiming the term ‘game’ rather than adopting a new term due to the toxicity and baggage around the term and its culture in recent years. (Background on some of these issues, particularly the more contemporary examples, can be found in Game Changers, by Dan Golding and Leena Van Deventer.) Escaping the baggage might help in cultivating a more respectable image for the industry, both inside and outside of the academy, but it also feels dishonest—instead of denying the past, it seems the more mature decision to acknowledge and improve upon these failings in order to reclaim the word.

Similarly, ‘Serious Games’ is a term that can be claimed and reclaimed. As the panelists identified, Serious Games carries a kind of juvenile quality that can be seen to undermine the field’s credibility. But the panelists also agreed that play itself was an inherently serious pursuit. So Serious Games occupies both an oxymoronic and a tautological state, which seems the appropriate level of whimsical for a discipline concerned with improving the world through playfulness and fun.

Serious Games, as a discipline, already exists. An international joint conference on the subject has concluded its second iteration. Seeking approval and credibility is not necessary, as that approval and credibility is being ever improved as scholars and developers continue their important work. We needed ‘Serious Games’ to establish the discipline and earn that initial credibility, but turning from it now achieves nothing. By criticising ourselves and spending time debating definitions, we risk entering an eternal cycle of switching labels in an attempt to better reflect the changing industry and chase validation. Instead, Serious Games should cease the identity crisis and allow the definitions to change to reflect the field and its direction, rather than cutting off limbs to conform to external labels placed upon it.

Ensuring that Serious Games receive respect in the academy—and externally within the game industry and within those industries we are revolutionising—does not come from seeking a ‘credible’ name, but rather from being bold and self-confident in the work that we do beneath that title. If we as a discipline are questioning the very basics of how we refer to the work we do, how can we expect others not to question us?

Conclusion

One of the panelists referred to Serious Games as ‘awkward’, but this awkwardness is not inherent to the term itself, but seems to stem from the response to using it. But this does not seem accurate, based on personal anecdotal evidence. Serious Games, when first brought up with friends or acquaintances, typically receives two main reactions: dismissive (‘do you just play games really seriously?’), or inquisitive (‘what does that mean?’). Game design, more generally, when brought up in similar circumstances, also carries two main reactions: dismissive (‘do you just play lots of games?’) or acceptance (‘oh, cool.’).

The logical better choice here is to use the term Serious Games: the dismissive comments remain, of course, and these will continue until all facets of games research and development are well-received in the mainstream; however, there are tangible benefits to responding to an inquisitive response and explaining the purpose of Serious Games, rather than leaving the person with the assumption that the focus is on creating the next Call of Duty game—severely understating the significance of Serious Games outside of a commercial context.

And this comes back to the core question: is the term Serious Games an inhibitor to our wider acceptance and does it really capture everything we do?

The general consensus of the panelists indicated that they believed the term acts as an inhibitor (perhaps with the exception of Fullerton, who was unable to fully voice her views due to leaving the panel early for another commitment), but these opinions seemed unsubstantiated, or based in insufficient or idealised contexts.

This is not to say ‘Serious Games’ is a term that can never change; having a term that encapsulates how this discipline differs from games generally is important, but alternative terms suggested by the panel do not seem to solve the issues. In fact, some of these terms exacerbate those problems further. Even Schell’s (2014) suggestion of ‘transformative games’, not mentioned by the panel, presents its own issues. Serious Games, though not a perfect label, is no more imperfect than the alternatives we have been offered. It is the label we have and one under which we can cultivate an important, world-changing area of research and development.

The case for ‘Serious Games’, as opposed to the suggested alternatives, seems clear.


Reference List

Fullerton, T., Weinbren, J., Lim-Fei, V., de Freitas, S., Schouten, B., & Beavis, C. (2016). Beyond Serious Games: is the term serious games an inhibitor to our wider acceptance and does it really capture everything we do? [Panel]. Joint Conference on Serious Games 2016.

Golding, D., & Van Deventer, L. (2016). Game Changers. Affirm Press.

Marcy, A., Dyet, M., Barker, D., & Lee, M. (2016, June). Contemporary Issues in Game Design [YouTube recording]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0wu–YSMj1k.  

Schell, J. (2014). The Art of Game Design: A book of lenses. CRC Press.

Upper One Games. (2014). Never Alone <Kisima Inŋitchuŋa> [PC]. E-Line Media: Tempe, Arizona.


Authors

Dakoda Barker
@JiroJames
University of the Sunshine Coast

Alayna Cole
@AlaynaMCole
University of the Sunshine Coast