Serious Games

Games have been on my mind more than usual lately, both because of Jane McGonigal’s new book Reality is Broken, and Bruce Sterling’s review of The Art of Game Design. Games are fascinating because players perform pointless tasks that under any other circumstances would be considered work, and master arcane skills, all in the name of fun. If the energy put into playing games could be harnessed to external reality, whether economic or political, it’d be like building a social perpetual motion machine.


At the Prevail Project, we’ve been throwing around a few ideas for games. Games are undoubtedly educational, every game must at least teach players how to play the game. The military is investing heavily in games, and in fact, through Axis & Allies and Dungeons & Dragons, many modern games are able to trace their ancestry to Kriegspiel, the war game of the Prussian General Staff. The experiences of games can be immersive, epic, transformative. But aside from warfare, educational games exist in a ghetto of boring vocabulary flashcards and math drills. How can we use games to tell people stories about the world in a way that translates into becoming better citizens? Fate of the World is one such game, where players must solve global crises, learning about energy, climate change, and balancing political constituencies.


Another side of games is socialization. The typical charge leveled against gaming is that it’s an anti-social activity that takes a person out of their community. McGonigal presents research saying that gamers are more cooperative that the average person, and that games provide a social space that introverts feel comfortable in. Schell in The Art of Game Design has an interesting anecdote about designing an MMO (Massively Multiplayer Game) for Disney where the mechanics encouraged cooperation and politeness, leading to a better player culture. Multiplayer gaming with people you know can be a great way to bond. The question is how to make the social aspect of games more real, and not ‘thin’ connections that draw a player away from the real world.


The last area of games that we’re interested in, and on which relatively little research has been done, is the use of games to help collective decision-making. If I may get theoretical, there are basically three ways we collectively make decisions. The first is democracy; we vote for some people on the promise that they’ll do right by us. The second is expertise; we delegate questions to people who claim to know something, and do what they say. The third is economic; we pay people to do things we want, are rewarded for doing useful things in turn. All of these methods have problems. Democracies are slow to make and implement decisions (“You can always count on Americans to do the right thing – after they’ve tried everything else.”–Winston Churchill). It’s hard to evaluate the advice of experts, and expert advice is rarely followed, and the economy is in thrall to next-quarter thinking, and many people find their jobs (if they’re lucky enough to have a job) pointless and alienating. But maybe the principles of game design, experiences, flow, the right mixture of emotions and incentives, can be used to improve upon the money economy. If there was a platform for people to experiment with various forms of currency, reputation, and reward, then a diversity of options might help us discover a way to collectively make decisions that is effective, legitimate, and most of all, fun to participate in.


  1. Are you familiar with the Games-to-Teach project at MIT? You might want to check it out. Also the Serious Games Initiative out of the Woodrow Wilson Center in Wash DC. As for me, I must confess I find the humble boardgame with its face-to-face interaction best for socialization. The rise of the Eurogame (aka German-style boardgame) in the past decade has brought about a renaissance in boardgames.

    1. I’m not familiar with those initiatives, although @erhayes and @kaseido do games, learning, and communities professionally at ASU. More to the the point, I was wondering if you’d see this article (( about the history of wargames, and had any thoughts on it? Do games make better soldiers/leaders/decision-makers, or are they just distractions, and how can we make them better?

  2. Wow! That article by Kirschenbaum covered quite a bit of territory! Where to begin? Almost every paragraph brought comments to mind. But in the interests of brevity, let me just share this.

    More than a decade ago I had the opportunity to attend several Connections Conferences. (At that time they were run by the Air Force and held at Maxwell AFB in Montgomery, AL.) Mark Baldwin, the designer of successful computer games such as Empire and Empire Deluxe gave a presentation on his philosophy of game design. He said that games can do three things: teach, analyze, and entertain, but they cannot do all of them equally well. Trade-offs must be made. Therefore a game designed to teach students at a military staff college will be different from a game designed to entertain hobby wargamers, even if they have somewhat eccentric interests in arcane military details.

    Much of the gaming that Kirschenbaum discusses that goes on in government agencies is seminar gaming. The purpose is to walk decision makers and their staffs through plausible scenarios to get them thinking about issues they may not have considered before. It’s not generally competitive, although sometimes it can be for the wrong reasons, e.g. if the future of some program depends on the perceptions about its utility that are fostered by the game. In that case there can be competition over the assumptions and validity of the game. But fundamentally these games help decision makers and their staffs prepare for possibilities, and in that they are useful–up to a point. They embody a quotation from Dwight D. Eisenhower: “Plans are nothing; planning is everything.”

    1. This past week I came across an article you might want to read. It’s called “Why Wargaming Works,” and it’s by Peter Perla and Ed McGrady. They both work for the Center for Naval Analysis, and it’s in the Summer 2011 issue of the U.S. Naval War College Review. They basically make an argument that wargaming (if done well) creates a “synthetic experience” for the participants that enhances insights and learning. If you want to check it out, you can find it here:—Summer.aspx

  3. I’ve spent a lot of time studying games and intend to continue.

    I started out following Wittgenstein thinking about the idea of games as a model for understanding language as a patchwork of invented self-contained units that are game-like in their structure. I think this idea is enormously fruitful and I continue to follow up with it.

    Later I was wrestling with conflict and strategy. I had been reading Sun Tsu and Musashi, and found them enormously opaque. I turned to strategy simulations and added more reading in military history and learned enough so that now I can read Sun Tsu nodding rather than merely scratching my head.

    With the advent of the internet, I began to explore online text based games with fascinating (to me) results. I found that as I played my brain began to robustly visualize the descriptions I read. Not the mere static visualization that comes with reading a novel, but a dynamic visualization that flowed. My brain had become a fat client for the low bandwidth stream (1200baud) that came with the game. Vernor Vinge’s story Real Names and Other Dangers gave prophetic insight into what would come next.

    Next came the real MMO’s and a number of new dimensions emerged. They became more social and more immersive. They also added a greatly enhanced persistence and a complex in-game economy. They also were/are implemented in a largely multi-server environment in which created multiple parallel worlds, each driven by the same general “laws” but subject to the actions of different diverse populations with significant attendant variation.

    This foreword serves to introduce several points that I think are of worthy of interest.

    First, I am dismayed at what MBF refers to as the “ghetto of boring vocabulary flashcards and math drills” of educational games. Even causal observation of the intensity, dedication and learning that players display in MMO play should make educators lust for such a tool. In the process of mastery players create complex theories and strategies to achieve their goals. As they do, they employ methods of observation, refinement and group coordination that are enormously subtle. Reading, spelling, calculation and following direction become tools that are invoked with casual ease as a side-effect of successful play. For example read some of the raid management or boss fight postings of World of Warcraft or Everquest, or the tech analyses of the non-Newtonian physics of the EVE universe.

    Some of the more blatant motivational hooks have been adopted by such efforts as Khan Academy, foldIt and Prevail(!). The big payoff though would come from games in which real mastery of real intellectual skills served to open the way to phat lewts (rich prizes in leet speak, a game slang).

    Another dimension arises from multiple economies on parallel servers. Since at least Leibniz, and more robustly since Kripke, the idea of scientific laws has been most readily explicated by reference to possible worlds. Something is a law if it is true in all possible worlds, given a suitable definition of possible(physically possible, logically possible, temporally possible, etc). It is extremely difficult to conduct economic experiments in the real world, resulting in endless unresolvable woulda/shoulda/coulda disputes on economic matters. Here persistent game world economies implemented on multiple parallel servers (worlds) could provide a means to study economic behavior and to create controls that vary from world to world enhancing the opportunities for experiment and analysis. The game economies exhibit many economically interesting features as they stand: supply and demand, commodities, inflation, wealth accumulation, price differentials (star pricing). There is a lot of data already there to be mined and more subtle investigations could be constructed with relatively minor tweaks to the existing infrastructure.

    A guy named Castronova at IU has written a number of papers about game worlds, and Nick Yee who used to be at Stanford but is now on the web someplace has done studies on game demographics. Both interesting resources.

    I think this an enormously interesting field.

    1. I’d like to add an observation about the motivational aspect of game learning.

      My experience suggests that there are three big motivational hooks that intensify player motivation. I don’t imagine that they are new finds. Rather I hope to highlight them as Pareto factors (factors having disproportionate impact on outcomes).

      First, tasks that are well scaled to produce success. The more the better. Too hard makes for frustration leading to boredom; too easy takes a direct path to boredom.

      Second, lots of reps but not too many. Skills aren’t facts they are habits. They have to be trained not absorbed. Skills should provide a noticeable contribution to success in the tasks.

      Third, high frequency of reward even if the reward is small. Long waits to gain the benefit of success leads to decay of motivation leading to boredom.

      Boredom is the enemy. Make learners rabid to learn.

  4. I participated in Jane McConigal’s 2010 World Bank collaboration, Urgent Evoke: A Crash Course in Changing the World.

    Game designers published a sequence of graphic comic-style episodes, with each episode presenting a futures scenario provoking players to undertake research that could build capacity to begin solving global problems today: social innovation, food scarcity, electricity infrastructure, water crisis, the future of money, global gender inequality, crisis networking, etc.

    The game design was remarkably sophisticated. Gamers could issue points for creativity, innovation, and other qualities of posted comments and solution options. Moderators could issue bundles of points. Top gamers were flown to Washington D.C. to participate in World Bank forums. The game was rolling along smoothly for five weeks or so; but that’s when a group of ultra-sophisticated activist gamers showed up.

    Several users identifying themselves as Argentinian, with expertise in a variety of elaborate software tricks, intentionally disrupted the game space by blasting comments pages with critiques of World Bank practices, the hypocricy of constructing a game to solve problems the World Bank would create, etc. When moderators attempted to block the users, they appeared with different user names, using different rhetorical strategies related to democratic gaming standards, to force moderators to reinstate the blocked users. For several weeks, all the top scoring gamers, while striving to win the prize trip to World Bank headquarters, were being recruited by the Argentinian gamers to participate in an Evoke offshoot called Delta Force, a sort of proxy website for sharing data on cyber warfare, DIY cryptography, et cetera.

    I got my invitation to Delta Force soon thereafter, and joined up, just to see what was happening. The Argentinians posted pictures of themselves: one was a former Argentine Air Force special operations soldier; his girlfriend posted pictures where she and her girlfriends are dressed in sexy revolutionary outfits holding machine guns. They were posting DIY cryptography manuals and such, as I mentioned, which were probably very interesting, but simply over my head. I posted a comment on their main page saying, “You people are weird. I live in an American suburb.” Then I deleted my account.

    Jane McGonigal’s collaboration with the World Bank proceeded, but honestly, from a gamer’s perspective, the innocence was gone. The activists had made some very good points, and the missions started to seem like gamer exploitation. There I was spending thirty hours a week searching for solutions to food shortages in Africa, networking with doctoral students and NGO workers to write business plans for new companies that could assist in the good fight; but I could not shake the question of how to frame this gaming experience. This was not the purely fictional World of Warcraft. This was a game about the future of the actual planet, designed by a powerful institution, whose ambition was what, exactly? To provide global citizens — many of whom were paying by the hour to play the game from cafes in Africa with frequent blackouts — an opportunity to anticipate global food shortages, infrastructure meltdowns, and other terrible outcomes?

    As time went on, into week 7, week 8, week 9, and finally week 10, many of the gamers who invested the most energy into Urgent Evoke started venting their frustrations. I recall one gentleman from India, in particular, who claimed to have spent 50 hours a week researching solution options, blogging, networking, and communicating with moderators. First off, he paid for internet access by the hour. Second, when the game was over, and a few big winners were selected to fly to World Bank headquarters, many gamers were left in the lurch with nothing to show for their efforts but an Evoke certificate attempting to invest the gamer with a credential, something like a certified World Bank Social Innovator. For many people, this was a major sleight. There was no comprehensive follow up website where gamers could monitor the progress of their solution options, check if their new friends were actually developing the companies they claimed to be designing, etc.

    Overall, Urgent Evoke invested me with feelings of vague frustration, as if to say that despite the admirable attempts of perhaps hundreds of programmers, moderators, comic book artists, and staff, the Evoke project did not obtain the magic confluence of forces required to bridge the desire for positive humanistic outcomes with a sequence of “next best steps” in the present.

    Better luck next time.

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