I was recently at a conference on computer Gaming and among the usual polarised mix of fascinating and tedious presentations I was struck by the amount of attention paid to, and prolific use of the term, ‘Serious Games’.
Certainly much of the work being done under the banner of so-called ‘Serious Games’ is - at times - quite interesting and forward thinking; however I - none the less - have a significant bone to pick… I am deeply bothered by the idea and the name ‘serious games’. And my botheredness begins with the question Why? Why do we need a distinction, a genre, a moniker label that separates out ‘serious’ games from other games? No other art medium in human history has ever needed or used such a separation.
A literary novel may be focused on fun and adventure, it may be biting social commentary or it might detailed instructive history and yet we would not separate out serious from non-serious among these three. Such a distinction would be arbitrary and subjective. We may make a value judgement between good and bad, better or worse, but not about ‘seriousness’ or ‘purpose’. Likewise cinema, we might have a light romantic comedy or a meaty history documentary. The purpose of the former may be nothing more than comic entertainment and light satiric commentary on modern love; the later’s purpose may be to teach and inform about history but no filmmaker worth their salt would think of their film in either case as anything other than a narrative story experience, a journey the viewer takes.
Labelling one over another as a ‘serious film’ or a ‘film with a purpose’ is absurd. It implies that entertainment, the creative examination of ideas, the exploration of speculative worlds and the creative articulation of concepts, don’t count as ‘purposes’. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a Romantic Comedy and as such ‘not serious’ and yet it has a clear purpose of examining the failings that make up humanity and questioning our desire to exert control over our minds and memories. By the bizarre logic that drives people to use the term ‘Serious’ these things are not serious or purposeful enough - they are somehow beside the point.
More significantly, the overt implication of the branding of ‘Serious Games’ is that all other games are Not Serious - therefore may we deduce Frivolous, Disposable, Shallow or Unworthy? By naming a category of ‘serious games’ with the weight of a common genre all other games are, by implication, rendered as diminutive. This artificial separation prevents games from being Both purposeful and sophisticated as well as vibrant entertainment. Why should a game be one or the other? Be classified one over the other? We impose no such regime on any other art form.
In a practical sense the label of ‘serious games’ is also arbitrary due to the large body of games that fit all the didactic overtones of ‘serious games’ but which aren’t (or are not marketed as ‘serious’) Sid Mier’s Civilisation is a profoundly informative history documentary game. Indeed I had a forward-thinking high-school history teacher who used Civ for exactly this.
Is Civ a ‘serious game’? Does it benefit from such a label? Is the label useful? Would Civ have been less successful if it had be labelled a ‘serious game’?
Company of Heroes is both highly detailed history documentary game but it is also a profoundly overt cautionary and lamenting commentary on the effects of war. Is CoH a ‘serious game’?
Likewise the Total War series. Documentary, informative, didactic teaching media.
None of these games are presented, marketed, understood or conceived of as ‘serious games’ in the way in which the category is defined. Yet all clearly achieve and deliver exactly and specifically what ‘serious games’ claim to possess as a distinct persona. Game as teaching tool, training system.
Take a specific example of the two games Republic and A Force More Powerful. Both are strategy games that centre around leading a revolution through various forms of protest and government subversion. Both are nearly exactly the same in concept and are extremely similar in construct.
One is branded a ‘serious game’, the other not. What’s the difference? One would suggest its ‘intention’ is to train players on how to lead a protest in the real world. The other doesn’t make such an overt claim. And yet both draw upon and connect directly to real-world ideas, history, behaviours and knowledge. So any argument that one is more effective as a ‘training tool’ is waffer thin as, despite intention - or lack thereof - the content is the same.
Imagine two 4wd cars. Similar size, similar colour, similar shape. One has a badge on the side that saids “off-road” and comes with a free book talking up the joys of off-road driving. The other 4wd doesn’t have the badge and doesn’t have the book but is otherwise the same car. One is a ‘serious’ car - a car with a ‘purpose’ - the other is a car is just a car that can go off-road if the user wants.
The ‘off-road’ badge on the car - much like a moniker of ‘serious games’ - is simply a vacuous declaration, nothing more than a weasel word marketing tool.
It strikes me that ‘Serious Games’ is a bullshit term to satisfy game skeptics and ignorant reactionary public opinion. ‘Serious Games’ are a kind of overt pandering to those who dismiss games has shallow and mindless.
Those who declare themselves as developers of ‘serious games’ have chosen a submissive apologist path. Rather than simply creating better, more sophisticated, more emotionally, intellectually and philosophical complex games that fit with what it is they want to ‘say’, they cop-out by adopting the term ‘serious’ to give their game a kind of non-game legitimacy. The label ‘serious game’ is a declaration that saids “yes we agree with you, games are terrible and shallow and mindless, and we don’t want to be associated with them.”
And so I say the very idea of ‘serious games’ are bad for gaming; bad for game culture, bad for the game industry, bad for game players. The name ‘Serious Games’ undermine the art of gaming, they do nothing to grow, improve or expand the understanding of games as an important art form, creative expression, communication medium, learning tool or industry.
‘Serious games’ are an apology for games.
Now, allow me to qualify my rhetoric. I am not objecting to the games that wear the badge of ‘serious’, nor am I objecting to the use of games for training and targeted educational or other specifically desired user outcomes, rather I object to the name - to the word itself; ‘Serious’.
Character acting Role Play has been used as a tool by everyone from business managers to psychotherapists but we don’t call this ‘serious acting’ or ‘acting with a purpose’. Music is used as a tool in healthcare, childcare, education and mental illness but we don’t call this ‘serious music’. Storytelling is the heart of teaching, education and religion but we don’t call stories told in the classroom or the church ‘serious stories’.
The term ‘Serious Games’ has been coined with the same weaselling semantic wordplay that minted the expression ‘Climate Change’. ‘Climate Change’ was an expression invented by the Bush Administration to replace ‘Global Warming’. The Bush pollsters demographic surveys showed that voters felt ‘Climate Change’ was less scary, less alarming, than ‘Global Warming’. Being a political party of environmental skeptics, economic rationalists and social conservative fundamentalists, the term ‘Climate Change’ became a powerful, subversive, weasel word to water-down the issue and dull the masses with an opiate of complacency.
Serious Games has the same self-serving, delusional objectives to the detriment of Gaming.
Rather than divide games into serious and non-serious which serves no purpose but to diminutise the game industry, should we not be seeking instead to elevate gaming, to raise it up and to take all games ‘seriously’ - serious as ideas, serious as engagement, serious as fun, serious as concept, serious as entertainment, serious as enlightenment, serious as education…