Serious Games
Issue: Volume: 27 Issue: 2 (Feb 2004)

Serious Games

A year ago in this column, I lamented the fact that interactive computer graphics, namely gaming technology, was not living up to its potential in areas like education and training, but instead was being squandered on marginal applications like “advergaming” (see “The Buttering Edge,” January 2003, pg. 2). I’m happy to report that much has happened recently to remedy the situation.

Indeed, last month we reported on a new effort called the Education Arcade, based at MIT, that aims to employ the latest graphics technology and education research to create games that are both educational and entertaining (see "That's Edutainment!," January 2004, pg. 4). And now, a similar program, the Serious Games Initiative, sponsored by the Woodrow Wilson Center, is employing game technology for training in virtually any profession. Here are a few examples:

Virtual U: Created by game developer Digitalmill, this simulation gives would-be administrators a better understanding of the complexities of running a university. Players make decisions on issues ranging from faculty salaries to campus parking. At the end of the school year, the board of trustees rates the player's performance. Dozens of schools have already used the program, which can be downloaded from

MassBalance: Conceived by Massachusetts Senator Richard Moore as a way to educate constituents about the state's budgeting process, this game challenges players to balance a $23 billion budget with a $3 billion deficit. Players get feedback about the risks of making deep spending cuts, and they receive an evaluation after submitting a final budget. MassBalance can be played at

Incident Commander: Currently under development for the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) by Breakaway Games, this role-playing simulation aims to help public safety workers handle terrorist attacks, hostage situations, and natural disasters. It will offer simulations of situations that are difficult to simulate in real life. For example, when an incident occurs, users will be able to block roads, evacuate areas, and call in government agencies. NIJ plans to distribute the game to more than 30,000 public agencies.

So do these games make training and learning fun? They are certainly more entertaining than sitting through a lecture or poring over a textbook. But dwelling on whether they're fun or not is missing the point, says Ben Sawyer, head of Virtual U creator Digitalmill and co-leader of the Serious Games Initiative. "Learning can be just as much fun as playing a game," he says. "And playing a game can be just as serious as learning a skill. In fact, many gamers take their games pretty seriously."

The point is that serious games have a different mission. They are intended to make the best use of advanced computer gaming technology and offer new and better ways for people to learn, analyze, and explore.

Perhaps just as significant, as the demand grows for new training simulations and education-oriented games, it will open new markets for socially conscious developers seeking alternatives to creating yet another generation of violent, vacant, and valueless computer games. Serious gaming is an idea whose time has come, for developers and players alike. To paraphrase the rock song "Teen Angst" by Cracker, what the world needs now is another Grand Theft Auto like I need a hole in my head.

Phil LoPiccolo