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SGS 2006: "What's Wrong With Serious Games?"

What's Wrong With Serious Games?
James Paul Gee, University of Wisconsin
Ben Sawyer, DigitalMill
Henry Kelly, Federation of American Scientists

Ben Sawyer

Self examination matters. It's important to keep ourselves honest by anticipating criticisms.

Let's face facts. Many people outside this room think that serious games are a joke. A lot of companies who think they can create serious games, can't. There's too much unfinished work -- we've been holding these conferences for five years and we're still seeing lots of prototypes.

Gizmondo lost $250 million last year -- that's more revenue than the entire serious games space has taken in in the last four years, if not more. We're a rounding error.

Henry Kelly


  • Skepticism about the possibility for real improvements
  • Incomplete evidence, demand for large scale statistical proof (OMB, ED reviews) (if you haven't invented something, how do you generate large scale statistical proof for its effectiveness?)
  • Weak support from traditional education lobbyists -- fifth on everyone's list
  • Culture wars over education and a chronic budget crisis
  • Real and perceived weakness of the education research infrastructure
Self-inflicted wounds:
  • Over-promising (the edutainment fiasco, dot-bombs)
  • Get rich quick investments produced some poor material
  • No tradtion of systematic development (everything is a cottage industry -- you give someone a small pot of money and they go try and invent everything)
  • Huge latitude in what is called a game (buzzword de jour) (there are lots of things that are called games that aren't really games)
  • Don't really know where game techniques work (who, what, when)
  • Hot and cold media
A path forward:
  • Develop agreed metrics of success
  • Recognize that developing successful games for learning must be a part of a systematic program to design and test innovations in learning
  • Create an exciting, clearly articulated research program combining gaming expertise, learning science, computational science
  • Spiral development: build it, try it, try again (prepare for the long haul)
  • Build on proposals in play because of innovation initiatives (PACE, DO IT -- legislation currently being discussed that would focus on improving education in science and math)
James Paul Gee

I don't view the problem so much as defining what's wrong with the field as much as how important it is to get to the next stage before the enterprise collapses.

Cognitive science is a good example of a new field that started up with many of the same problems that serious games faces.

We need to discuss shared paradigms, things that we in our community can point to as examples of what is good -- the emerging common values of our field.

We need to confront central questions, disagree over them, fight over them. For example, what is the power of a game? We don't all agree on that. The power of games is that they put you inside a world, and you see the world from that perspective and have to solve problems from that perspective.

Games are a medium and like all media, they have a big emotional impact. But their pleasure is cognitive, in problem solving.

People say the problem with this space is that it costs so much to create serious games to current game standards. I don't agree with that. You don't need great graphics to have a great game. The problem isn't competing with Halo 2 -- competing with Final Fantasy IV would be just fine.

Game designers have to work together with learning designers, and they have to eventually come to speak a common language.

We can't go on much longer without killer apps. The commercial games field has killer apps, but we don't, not yet. When it comes to leading serious games, we're still too focused on violence and killing. We have Full Spectrum Warrior, but we need Full Spectrum Virus.

What will energize this space is that we're going to have a crisis over innovation. Our schools aren't producing people who can innovate. This means that all the jobs -- not just the low-end jobs -- will go to China and India. This will be our ticket past the current politics.


Q: Is some of our problem basically semantics? Do we need to defeat expansionist views of what serious games will be? And can we stop saying that serious games are all about learning? There are plenty of examples of serious games that have nothing to do with learning. [Ben Sawyer]
A: In any good game, learning is the drug. It's a deep pleasure to people when it's done in the right way. [James Paul Gee]
A: The Department of Defense is doing the best job at this sort of thing, with lots of studies and proof as to the effectiveness of all of this. [Henry Kelly]

Q: Where have we set expectations as of today? We've said things like, "serious games are going to be learning crack". Yet most commercial games aren't reviewed all that well. [Ben Sawyer]
A: I think our batting average could end up being better than in the commercial realm. There, there's competition for the same things -- for example, everyone wants to make, say, a first-person shooter that takes all the money. But we're going to build products for niches, more like independent films. [James Paul Gee]
A: We need permission to fail. We need to experiment and have some interesting failures. This implies some level of public funding. [Henry Kelly]

Q: Are we apologists for Grand Theft Auto? Do we exist as a counterbalance to things people don't like about some commercial games?

Q: How much of the assessment issue is on the wrong path? There are a lot of people looking for silver bullets, one-size-fits-all solutions. It seems like we spend a lot of time assessing the game instead of the overall learning solution in which it exists. [Ben Sawyer]
A: The assessment model we have for things that aren't games (like schools) is broken. This is something we have to offer. Games like Rise of Nations provide players with huge amounts of performance data. As a paradigm for assessment, that's more sophisticated than a lot of what we do in schools and workplaces. This is a real contribution we can make. [James Paul Gee]
A: Many benefits of games don't show up on standardized testing models. [Henry Kelly]


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