Serious Games for Social Good

Games, especially those played over digital media including computer games, mobile games, online games and console games have massive appeal among teenagers and young adults, especially in the West. In one 2018 survey of over 700 US teens in the 13-17 age group, 97% of males and 83% of females said they played video games1. This level of penetration is already known and exploited by product companies with teen-oriented marketing, product placement and game art. However, a more important use of this penetration and the impressionable age of the players may be to build awareness and sensitivity in teens and young adults towards important global issues. This is being attempted with considerable success through a special sub-class of video games called “Serious Games”.
“Serious Games” is a term used to describe those games which retain the elements of competition and fun which improve engagement among the players, but replace the purely entertainment purpose of other games with creating awareness, or helping build skills to cope with serious, real-life issues. The “fun” element for improved engagement is especially important when dealing with complex issues like wars, social justice, environmental challenges, etc. due to the need of the player to understand various points of view and nuances through in-depth understanding of the situation. Serious Games have some overlap with simulations, but the latter concentrate more on skill building and replicating real life scenarios, often at the expense of the “fun” element.
Since the early 2000s the potential of Serious Games as a mass education, mass communication and opinion influencing medium has gained popularity. Today these games cover a vast number of fields, including Scientific Research, Engineering, Education, National Defense, Activism, Environmental Awareness, Healthcare etc. This means games designed for “Social Good” purposes help create awareness about natural and man-made disasters in faraway places, or affect attitude change towards societal issues in the player’s own community.

There are three main types of Serious Games:

  1. Awareness building games
    The main purpose of such a game is to bring attention to an ongoing problem in society, be it the issue of a genocidal war in a faraway land, the plight of homeless children, or the complexities of environmental devastation. Some of the best known games in this genre, like 2006’s “Darfur is Dying”, the UN-sponsored “Against all Odds” and the simple, but powerfully emotive “Ulitsa Dimitrova” about a 7 year old chain-smoking, homeless child living in the Russian Winter focused on using gameplay to help players understand the hopelessness, devastation and complexities of ongoing global tragedies.
  2. Skill-building games
    To be clear, these games aren’t necessarily designed to replace actual training to gain expertise in a subject. Rather, they carefully balance giving just the right degree of challenge and complexity to help the player appreciate the enormity of a problem without making the problem as hard as in real life, which might make the player lose interest out of a sense that the problem is too complex, and therefore not “fun”. For example, Microsoft’s “Flight Simulator” gives players a feel for what it is like to be in the cockpit of a single engine Cessna or an enormous passenger jet, with life-like goals, realistic maps and dashboards, but without the obvious real-life challenges of unpredictable, life-threatening weather conditions or complex technical know-how that might put off a lot of players. Other skill-building games like IBM’s “City One” which helps a player understand the complexities of urban planning or the award-winning “Superbetter” which helps people achieve goals and overcome personal obstacles, created by the award winning game designer Jane McGonigal after her own bout with concussion show the vast applicability of skill-building games. Today there are skill-builders for everything from computer programming to learning cooking basics!
  3. The crowd-sourced problem solving game
    This type of gamified learning has shown spectacular real-life results in the past. In 2008, an online puzzle game, “Foldit” threw a challenge to online players to solve particularly intricate protein binding puzzles. The combined effort of thousands of players helped decipher the crystal structure of an AIDS-causing virus, the Mason-Pfizer virus. While the scientific community had been grappling with the problem for over 15 years, the combined efforts of thousands of players working together deciphered the structure in just 10 days!

All three of types of games requires a delicate balancing act. Educators, social scientists, and game designers must work together to bring together seemingly disparate goals, namely:

  1. Building awareness, creating empathy or generally engaging the player’s mind to start thinking about a particular real-life problem;
  2. Ensuring the goal is both subtle yet foremost in the player’s mind, to ensure recall in the real world leading to action; and
  3. Making the player feel a sense of “fun” while actually using the resulting engagement to introduce multiple difficult, even tragic ideas.

As a pedagogy gamification has become an increasingly over-used buzzword. If used skilfully however, it has the ability to create deep impacts among wide swaths of the population, and can become powerful agents of change to help bring real-world solutions to real-world problems through simulated problems in the cyber-world.

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