Serious games

Last friday we invited Rob Willems to give a talk at Concept7 about Serious Gaming. He explained what serious games are, who makes them and how they do that.

Games in our lives

Last year the Entertainment Software Association reported that 65% of U.S. households play video games today and that the average age of a game player is 35 years old. In the United Kingdom BBC reports that 59% of 6- to 65-year old play one form of video game or another.

These numbers are growing and are very likely to continue to grow: a recent report shows that a staggering 97% of the 12-17 age group in the United States play one form of video games or another.

To play video games has become the norm; to not play video games has become the exception – Jesper Juul 2010.

Why not do something serious with this?

On a rather irregular basis, we at Concept7 organize an open podium at our office in Paterswolde. Usually one of the employees prepares a story to tell, goal is to share some specific knowledge.

This time we invited guest-speaker Rob Willems. Rob is currently self-employed as innovation coach and lecturer at Hanze Hogeschool in Groningen. He did a great talk about serious games.

Why design a serious game

Whereas most games are designed to be entertaining and fun, a serious game is a game designed for a primary purpose other than pure entertainment. These purposes can vary a lot depending on the strategy they are part of.

Purposes and goals of serious games can be abstracted. Serious games are ment:

  • to inform;
  • to train and educate;
  • to change attitude and behavior.

Known industries that make use of serious gaming as part of their strategies are defense, education, scientific exploration, health care, emergency management, city planning, engineering, religion, and politics.

Did you know the US Army has been designing serious games for centuries already to train military personel? Actually, the first serious game is often considered Army Battlezone, an abortive project headed by Atari in 1980. These days the US Army uses this kind of games to train a soldier’s tactical approach in conversations during war time.

Serious games for blind and sighted kids

Rob told about a project he’s working on at this very moment. Together with his team, he’s designing a Wii game for blind and sighted children . Goal of the game is to improve the children’s physical skills and make it more fun to play video games with friends and family.

During their research they were often amazed by the skills these blind kids do have. In some occasions they just can’t keep up with their friends who are not visually impaired. An often heard critique: ‘My friends let me win now and then, but I want to really win, by myself.‘. Their research resulted in a few objectives:

  • The game has to be challenging and engaging, both for blind and sighted kids;
  • it needs to have a positive effect on a blind kid’s physical skills;
  • they must play it together.

During the project they held design and brainstorm sessions at four families in The Netherlands. Both blind and sighted kids took part during these sessions. It was amazing how many great ideas these kids themselves came up with. Ideas varied from medieval hide-and-seek games to sports related ideas.

The overall conclusion was that sound would play an important role in these games. They did several experiments with sound and found that there had to be sound all the time. Otherwise the blind kid would think the game had broken or ended.

One of the big challenges would be to keep the sighted kid just as excited about the game as the blind kid. They found that perhaps they could give the sighted kid visual cues (which the blind kid doesn’t see) and give the blind kid auditive cues (which the sighted kid doesn’t hear). The project is still running and will be finished this summer.

Serious games in healthcare

Also in healthcare, serious games are used to train personnel. Head2Head developed software which let’s doctors virtually perform surgery. Tasks vary from picking up tiny things alone, but also working together on tasks.

Serious games are sometimes used to distract patients during painful moments. We saw an example of a soldier who had serious burning injuries. Every time the bandages had to be replaced, nurses let him wear a virtual reality helmet. The patient was distracted but also when measuring brain activity, they found that the patient actually felt less pain…

In The Netherlands there’s a project called CAREN (Computer Assisted Rehabilitation ENvironment). A lot of boundaries during revalidation of a patient, are mental problems. Anxiety prevent a patient from doing certain things.

The projects involves a virtual environment in which a patient is asked to perform tasks in a gaming environment, the game involves full-body movement. They found that people are much more likely to do certain movements in a gaming environment than they would in the real world.

Below you’ll find a video about the CAREN project, it’s spoken in Dutch but the visuals say a lot so go ahead and watch it.

Great talk

We had a great afternoon filled with great examples and insights. Whenever you’re interested in Rob’s talk, you can invite him for your company as well. You can contact him through his company’s website.


A casual revolution – Jesper Juul