Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

25 March, 2007

Weekend Design Challenge: Serious games
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 2:34 AM

So, let’s get serious. I know, I know, what a switch. ;)

But, let’s put our thoughts towards designs for serious games. What are some worthy goals, and how can we make effective games?

Serious games have gotten quite a bit of attention over the last few years. One of my favorites is The McDonald’s Video Game, where you take control of all aspects of the hamburger megacorporation we all love to hate. But, the one thing to notice here is that the game isn’t a simple, thin morality tale. Instead, the game gives you a goal to accomplish (increase profits), but how you do it makes a difference. Although the game isn’t a 100% simulation, you can see how tough it is to make things all work together. Being environmentally conscious and making a profit are sometimes conflicting goals. Not to say that there isn’t any bias here: most games end in you tanking the company despite your best efforts. But, instead of cheering on the demise of the company, the game laments the fact that, “years of corporate culture have been destroyed.”

This game is interesting because it breaks some rules that people keep repeating. For example, the user interface isn’t very friendly, but this is part of the game. Having to switch back and forth between different areas in the game shows how difficult it is to balance all the different needs. Focus too much on the restaurant and your beef supply might shrink too much. Focus on the corporate level and slacking employees will destroy your profits. Spend too much time try to cull weak cows and an unanswered environmental challenge will cost you dearly. The message in the game is that there are no easy answers to the problem, and in the end you will probably still end up ruining rainforests, upsetting customers, and bankrupting a company despite your best efforts to please everyone. However, the game does a decent job of making you think that a viable solution can be found in the next game.

Another major source of serious games is Persuasive Games, which has made quite a few high-profile serious games. One of the most notable is Airport Security where you play the part of a airport screener keeping track of what inconsequential items are banned at that point in time. I feel that these games, in general, are a bit more like morality plays. It doesn’t take long in Airport Security before you learn that seemingly arbitrary restrictions make life harder for screener as well as passengers, for example.

One not-quite-game-related thing I noticed recently was an interesting captcha system developed my Microsoft Research (yeah, don’t hold that against the idea!) Asirra is a captcha system where you have to identify cats from dogs. The interesting twist is that the images of cats and dogs are from, and each image has an “adopt me” link under it. It’s a rather cute idea that tries to secure websites while providing a service for a worthy cause. Not quite a game, as I said, but still an interesting way to help a cause.

So, with all these examples, what type of serious game would you make? Consider these aspects in your answer:

  • What’s the serious goal of the game?
  • How do you make sure you aren’t too preachy or heavy-handed?
  • What is the interesting gameplay element?
  • What makes the game sticky? In other words, what makes people want to keep playing it?
  • Why should people care? What makes it interesting to share with friends?

Now, let’s hear your ideas.

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  1. Briefly

    [...] Psychochild has a weekend challenge up re: serious games… I need to stop in and comment on that one at some point. All my ideas boil down to either accounting or politics, or both… [...]

    Pingback by Voyages in Eternity — 27 March, 2007 @ 9:35 AM

  2. Again, a design challenge with so few takers. :/

    One great idea is to use online games to teach languages. A few links from actual projects:

    Learn Chinese through an MMO. Interesting attempt. Although, I’m not sure an MMO is the right type of game for learning a language. Especially one that has a difficult verbal aspect.

    Slime Forest is another interesting game that teaches you Japanese in the context of a JRPG-inspired game. Brilliant, really, since if you’re an English-speaker interested in learning Japanese and are online, you probably like JRPGs already. The game is a bit simple looking, but when I played a bit of it back in the day it was a fun beginning.

    Nobody else has any ideas?

    Comment by Psychochild — 29 March, 2007 @ 6:36 PM

  3. Games could probably have great value in aiding the deaf and blind. A big part of adaption to either condition is learning to recognize information acquired by one sense that would normally be acquired by another. For example, a deaf person must pay closer attention to facial and bodily expression to acquire the information normally acquired through verbal tone and inflection.

    For this purpose, deception games could be both fun and instructive. One of the more fun elements of poker is trying to bluff and recognize the bluffs of others. Magic tricks are fun largely for the challenges of deceving and seeing through deception.

    One fun game, an old one (but one I’ve never seen translated into interactive media), is trying to discern the one truth out of a group of lies: The Lying Game. Each player makes four statements and only three of them false, while the others try to determine with is true.

    A game like this for the blind could be particularly interesting. One player alone would listen to a sound, then write four possible interpretations of the sound (ex: 1. a heartbeat, 2. a drum, 3. a car passing over a speedbump, 4. a knock on a door). The other players would then read the possible interpretations, then hear the sound, then choose which is the truth. Done as a boardgame, the initial listener would have headphones, see the answer on an LCD screen (blind people are generally around friends or family with vision) or read it on a Braille translator, then press a button for the machine to repeat the sound through speakers on demand. Done as an online game, the server would only send the sound and answer to the first player; that player would type additional answers; all answers (3 false) would then be presented to the other players in the form of a “multiple choice” quiz along with the sound; all text is translated into Braille.

    Such a game could be fun even among sighted people, if fleshed out right. I think I’ll start working on it. =)

    Comment by Aaron — 31 March, 2007 @ 10:21 AM

  4. Well, I probably never will design any games so I give away an idea.

    I always wanted to design game which could obtain 2 objectives:
    1) Teach people to program.
    2) Develop ideas of distributed control system.

    If one look on many contemporary games, many of them force people to optimize tactical and strategic tasks.
    People spend many thousands man/hours in developing solutions to problem game give.
    Why not to create game that could potentially use all this creativity for actual real live benefit?

    There was already starting to appear games containing some of elements of this idea.
    I am talking about persistent game word games. Like game in which you rule a kingdom which continues to exist and interact with the world no matter are you online or not.
    Problem in these games is that people who do not sleep and log in every hour to check what is going on have a big advantage.
    Why not as a first step let people to program there kingdom response depends on its state? What if we step further? Let’s look on game like War Craft.
    Why not let people to program actions of there units from micro to macro base on information this units have? Computers become faster and faster, so we probably can interpreter short rule sets reasonably fast.

    You program your guys and then let compete with somebody else.
    People might not like passive aspect of it, but on other hand it is fun to see how your set of rules perform against some one else and think how you can modify it to perform better.
    One can actually run server with persistent word and let user to download and play with any speed all or parts what was going on in there absence and then they could dynamically modify rules.

    Off cause creating rule set take too mach time, so one can not really use it for instant response.

    Off cause there should be some mechanism to limit amount and time rule set take to execute per unit and force people to use unit hierarchy, where some units are commanders, more responsible for strategic decision, but each unit decide individually when to swing it’s sword. One can look on creating and observing this game as on real life experiment of models of decision making, load distribution and program adaptability.

    Comment by Alexei Gladkikh — 5 April, 2007 @ 11:42 PM

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