Posted by: Tj'ièn | January 10, 2010

Serious games, boring fun

The term serious games became widely used around the year 2002 and covers advergaming, edutainment, game-based learning, simulations, diverted games, persuasive games and organizational games. These games all have another purpose besides entertainment; using game-like technology to overcome problems found in attracting new audiences for certain goals, getting kids to learn, understanding politics and what not.

I am a believer. That is to say that I believe that games have the potential to be great teachers, that they can sell products, that they have the ability to accurately simulate anything and provide insight into any situation. Games like America’s Army have already proved that games can indeed be used for other purposes than solely entertainment.

But it is not what serious games are what bugs me, but the term itself. Serious games sounds and feels like boring fun, a paradox. Can games be serious? Can games be taken serious by its player? Is playing a game not willingly suspending disbelieve but then, when it ends, you step back out of the ‘magic circle‘ to return to reality, to return to seriousness?

In my opinion the term serious games questions two fundamental values of games that make the term paradoxical. The first value is the fact that the player engages games voluntarily. If a player is forced to play a game it is no longer a game. The second value of games is that they are separated from reality. Play occurs within a time and space not connected to the ‘real world’, or with other words, play happens within the ‘magic circle’.

The term serious games questions these values of games as it marks a distinction between serious games and all other games. All other games are not serious if such a distinction is made and therefore the term serious games puts the emphasis on serious.

To emphasize the seriousness is to underestimate the importance of fun. Emphasizing the ability to learn from a game above having fun destroys the game and creates a learning exercise instead.

Trying to connect the real world -together with its serious consequences- to a game breaks the border of the ‘magic circle’ and therefore breaks the game experience. Connecting a game to the real world means that playing the game has real consequences outside the ‘magic circle’. Games have to be contained within the ‘magic circle’ or they become something else. If not, war could be seen as a game, while I think most of us can agree that it is not.

The connection -between the real world and the game world- that the term serious games suggests also has an affect on the voluntary aspect of games. Emphasizing the fact that a ‘game’ provides daily physical exercise, for example, makes the act of ‘playing’ disappear. You’re not playing the game, but you’re exercising. The focus of the players’ attention shifts from playing to exercising; from enjoying the game voluntarily to following an exercise to look healthy.

By questioning these fundamental principles of games they distance themselves from them. These serious games aren’t games at all when they emphasize the seriousness, which brings us back to the paradox I felt earlier. But as I said at the beginning of this article, I do believe in the fact that games can have an added value, besides being fun. But this other value is always less important than the fun players can get out of it. Because of this belief, I think it is important to search for an alternative term that describes these kinds of games.

Another reason why I think it is important to look for an alternative term is because of public discussions about games. These discussions raise some important questions about games. What is the value of games for people? What and how do they contribute to our society? These discussions aren’t helped by an industry that doesn’t take itself serious and feels the need to diverge games between serious games and ‘standard’ games. How can our medium be seen as art, worthwhile, important and able contribute to culture and daily life if the creators themselves don’t see it as such? To be taken seriously we should abandon the term serious games. We should take all games serious.

For the reasons I mentioned above I think it is necessary to come up with a better term. Terminology is important as it changes the way we think, discuss, feel and create. Some people will feel that it’s ‘just semantics’, but I strongly believe that semantics have a huge impact on people as it changes peoples perception of what is meant by it.

I would like to propose the term applied games for games with added value besides enjoyment.

The term applied games has several advantages. Like applied art respects the core value of art, applied games respects the core values of games by putting the emphasis back on games and their enjoyment. Applied games doesn’t create a divergence between different kinds of games, but suggest unison. It also doesn’t describe the game’s content, leaving the ‘other’ value open and broadening the spectrum of what can be seen as an applied game.

Applied games takes games seriously and realizes the fact that games are about fun first while recognizing their potential to be more.



  1. Someone should go through all of the game industry lingo and start officially changing our terms to more appropriate ones.
    Trouble is; nothing is “official” yet for any work done in the game industry. I give it another 5 years before these discussions start leading somewhere.
    And of course, discussions like these are needed for that.
    Nice article!

    • Thanks for dropping a line. Yes, it would be nice if there was a standardized lingo but I’m not sure I we’re there in five years. The discussion about lingo has been around for years and even this article is already more than 2 years old (almost 3 years old now I think of it).
      People might think that lingo and names are irrelevant, that it is “just semantics”, and that their impact is limited and that it is all about the “content”. To them I say talk to advertisers and marketing people.

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