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Serious games continuum: Between games for purpose and experiential environments for purpose

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While many categorizations and definitions have attempted to elucidate the elusive term serious games, we are still some way off formulating an agreed understanding of what serious games are and can be. This article argues that the term serious games challenges our understanding of generally accepted characteristics such as, challenge, play and fun, which are largely associated with and borrowed from video games. It is argued that key to understanding what serious games encapsulate is to look beyond these characteristics. This article proposes a definition and way to frame serious games technologies, applications and environments along a continuum of gaming characteristics or gameness. From those with traditional gaming activities and characteristics (challenge, play, fun, etc.) at one end to those with minimal traditional gaming characteristics at the other end, whose main purpose is to provide experience and emotion to convey meaning. The main advantages of the definition and continuum are to establish a shared understanding and arena for current and emerging serious games, frame and connect currently fragmented groups into a cohesive serious games movement and community and open opportunities for future collaborative research and development. In addition, it helps in identifying characteristics for the design and assessment of serious games.
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Serious games continuum: Between games for purpose and experiential
environments for purpose
Tim Marsh
National University of Singapore, 11 Computer Link, Singapore
article info
Article history:
Received 19 September 2010
Revised 4 December 2010
Accepted 9 December 2010
Available online 14 January 2011
Keywords:
Serious games
Definition
Categorization
Continuum
abstract
While many categorizations and definitions have attempted to elucidate the elusive term serious games,
we are still some way off formulating an agreed understanding of what serious games are and can be. This
article argues that the term serious games challenges our understanding of generally accepted character-
istics such as, challenge, play and fun, which are largely associated with and borrowed from video games.
It is argued that key to understanding what serious games encapsulate is to look beyond these character-
istics. This article proposes a definition and way to frame serious games technologies, applications and
environments along a continuum of gaming characteristics or gameness. From those with traditional
gaming activities and characteristics (challenge, play, fun, etc.) at one end to those with minimal tradi-
tional gaming characteristics at the other end, whose main purpose is to provide experience and emotion
to convey meaning. The main advantages of the definition and continuum are to establish a shared under-
standing and arena for current and emerging serious games, frame and connect currently fragmented
groups into a cohesive serious games movement and community and open opportunities for future col-
laborative research and development. In addition, it helps in identifying characteristics for the design and
assessment of serious games.
Ó2011 Published by Elsevier B.V. on behalf of International Federation for Information Processing.
1. Introduction
It has been widely publicised that we can leverage upon the
engaging and motivational aspects of video games to transform
the way people learn and make learning more enjoyable. It is be-
cause of this that many sectors and organizations from business,
health, military to education the world over are considering the
potential of serious games to support learning and, for example,
to complement existing teaching and learning materials and
resources.
Interaction with serious games is for purposes other than, but
may also include, entertainment. For example, an increasing array
of categories are used to encapsulate emerging purposes for
serious games, such as, learning, training, education, health,
well-being, for change, persuasion, or as argued herein, simply
for experience or emotion.
Many informative and well-surveyed publications in the emerg-
ing serious games literature outline the history of the term serious
games (e.g. [2], pp. 54–59) and highlight the often conflicting inter-
pretations of serious games in an attempt to pin-down what the
term actually encapsulates (e.g. [1,32,33]. The term serious games
is said to have originated from Abt’s [1] book ‘‘Serious Games’’, lar-
gely applied to analogue board and card games. Later, the term
serious games was adopted by the Woodrow Wilson International
Center for Scholars to refer to video game-based learning and sim-
ulation, which subsequently funded the Serious Games Initiative
[29], a networking and resource facility. While the history of the
term seems to have been well documented, we are however still
some way off identifying a way to frame all technologies, applica-
tions and environments of what all players (academics, research-
ers, educators, practitioners, developers, etc.) would identify as
serious games.
This is compounded by rapid technological and artistic develop-
ments and innovations of emerging virtual and gaming environ-
ments, media, interaction and gameplay that make problematic
the proposal of precise definitions of serious games; being inaccu-
rate in the short term and redundant in the long term.
This article argues that a categorization or definition of serious
games should encapsulate all researchers, developers, academics,
etc. working in the area of serious games. This is not intended to
be a review or survey article per se, of which there are many, but
proposes an approach to classify and categorize serious games
along a continuum of gaming characteristics (e.g. challenge, play,
fun) from video games for purpose at one end, through those with
fewer traditional game characteristics, to environments with min-
imal traditional gaming characteristics at the other end, whose
main purpose is to provide experience and emotion to convey
meaning.
1875-9521/$ - see front matter Ó2011 Published by Elsevier B.V. on behalf of International Federation for Information Processing.
doi:10.1016/j.entcom.2010.12.004
E-mail address: dr.tim.marsh@gmail.com
Entertainment Computing 2 (2011) 61–68
Contents lists available at ScienceDirect
Entertainment Computing
journal homepage: ees.elsevier.com/entcom
By shifting further away from games and gameplay in the tradi-
tional sense of the term, the continuum thus provides an arena that
opens opportunities to encapsulate emerging experimental and
experiential environments and digital media (including: mixed
reality/media, interactive cinema, movies, theatre, documentaries,
storytelling, etc.) as serious games in which the purpose is to pro-
vide experience and emotions, and convey meaning. For example,
through encounters with cultures, values and customs of past
and present civilizations, or to participate in scenarios and social
situations and make ethical and moral judgments and decisions.
Desirable outcomes from the proposed continuum are to estab-
lish a shared understanding and arena for current and emerging
serious games, frame and connect currently fragmented groups
into a cohesive serious games movement and community and open
opportunities for future collaborative research and development.
In addition, it helps in identifying characteristics for the design
and assessment of serious games.
This article is organized as follows. In Section 2, some of the
many diverse definitions of serious games are identified, and argu-
ments, rationale and advantages for the development of a contin-
uum are presented. In Section 3, the serious games continuum is
presented which is an amalgamation of three interconnected
groupings. This is followed by discussion and conclusion sections.
2. Serious games continuum: critique and rationale
While numerous, categorizations and definitions of serious
games are, by-and-large, distinct and conflicting. For example, a
survey of the literature reveals a deluge of definitions from
Prensky’s [30] short and succinct definition of serious games being
‘‘Entertainment Games with Non-Entertainment Goals’’ through
Zyda’s [36] definition highlighting the challenging and entertaining
game-based nature of serious games for government, corporate
and public service purposes, to Michael and Chen’s [17] definition
which highlights purpose as delivering a message, teach a lesson or
provide an experience and emphasizing that serious games use the
artistic medium of games. While sharing some similarities, this
cross-section of definitions highlights some of the many diverse
perspectives on serious games. In addition, there is some disagree-
ment about whether purpose or entertainment is the primary
importance. For example, Zyda [36] argues that ‘‘the entertainment
component comes first’’ in serious games, just like that of video
games, and pedagogy is ‘‘subordinate’’. Likewise, Prensky [20] ar-
gues that games should first be entertaining or fun and then should
encourage learning. In contrast, Michael and Chen (2006, p. 287)
state that ‘‘a serious game is a game in which education (in its var-
ious forms) is the primary goal, rather than entertainment’’. Here-
in, it is argued that, in general, it’s not important whether or not
entertainment or purpose is of primary importance, but the crucial
issue is that the purpose is to some degree successful. For example,
in being persuasive, informative or for health, well-being, etc. In
addition, it may also be more appropriate to talk about experience
than the sub-category of entertainment because, as outlined be-
low, entertainment and associated terms like fun are not always
appropriate descriptions for all serious games.
It can be argued that writers and researchers defining or catego-
rizing serious games tend to emphasize a perspective or area of
specialization that they are familiar and conversant with. A similar
position has been made by Sawyer and Smith [24] and Sawyer [23]
arguing that, ‘‘too often, serious games is defined only as that
which the definer does!’’ In his keynote to the Singapore Serious
Games Conference 2010 [27], Ben Sawyer [25] emphasized this
point by drawing on the well-known Indian parable in which blind
men describe an elephant through only the parts of the animal that
they have touched. So for example, one would describe its big ears,
one its huge body; another would mention its tusks, another the
tail, and so on. That is, from their own perspective without refer-
ence to others.
To address this, Sawyer and Smith [24] have developed a taxon-
omy incorporating everything that they argue serious games can
be, and is ‘‘a more holistic and functional overview of the theory
and application of the movement’’. However, while insightful and
a huge undertaking, their taxonomy is complex, and as argued,
does not encapsulate all characteristics that make up all serious
games that would be acceptable to all players of serious games.
Perhaps one of the more contentious arguments in this article is
that the term serious games challenges our understanding of gen-
erally accepted characteristics such as, challenge,play and fun,
which are largely associated with and borrowed from video games.
It is argued that key to providing a fuller understanding of what
serious games encapsulate is to also look beyond these character-
istics to frame and define serious games because they may not be
appropriate for all serious games.
As mentioned, for some serious games it’s more fitting to talk
about experience rather than fun or entertainment because these
terms are not appropriate for all serious games. For example, with
serious games with weighty subject areas such as providing an in-
sight into what it’s like to starve or to understand what it’s like to
be hunted by militia, or with serious games that allow us to expe-
rience cultures, customs and values of past and present civiliza-
tions or to participate in scenarios and social situations and
make ethical and moral judgments and decisions. While all games
have rules that define the conditions and constraints about how a
game is played, it is argued that rules or constraints can also be
determined by social and cultural structures depicted within a
serious game.
With examples such as these, characteristics such as being
thought-provoking, informative, awareness-raising or stimulating
are as important, if not more so, than fun or entertainment. In addi-
tion, using widely accepted terms like play borrowed directly from
video games to describe interaction with all serious games is inapt
and awkward and undermines some serious games subject areas.
Furthermore, the concept of flow being an optimum balance be-
tween challenge and skill [4] and the associated state of engage-
ment may not always be appropriate characteristics for serious
games because of the inherent tensions between flow/engagement
and reflection on a serious games’ subject area, especially in learn-
ing, training and educational serious games [8].
This brings into question the use of the actual term game itself
when applied to some serious games. So do serious games have to
be a game and do we have to have a competitive and conflict game
objective in serious games? In considering the above arguments
about the inappropriateness of typical gaming characteristics
(challenge,play,fun, etc.) applied to some serious games, as well
as some serious games being more than just about competitiveness
and levelling-up, and that classifications and definitions of games
appear inadequate, it is problematic to categorize all serious games
as games. In addition, games and gameplay are generally associated
with voluntary play, or as Huizinga [10] describes it, all play is vol-
untary activity. However, serious games may ‘‘violate voluntari-
ness’’ [32] in that students, trainees and military personnel may
be required or ‘‘ordered’’ to play a particular game as part of their
education or training. Hence, raising questions about the appropri-
ateness, unease and tensions arising from the use of the term
‘‘games’’ applied to all serious games.
Finally, as widely discussed, the use and understanding of the
term serious is not without difficulties, and this is further com-
pounded when coupled with ‘‘games’’. However, this article con-
curs with similar discussions and views as argued by Bogost [2]
in which he highlights the limitations, contradictions and inaccura-
cies of the term serious games but concludes that it is probably a
62 T. Marsh/ Entertainment Computing 2 (2011) 61–68
term that we are now stuck with to describe our discipline. With
increasing public interest, awareness and recognition, the label
serious games is emerging as a sort of accepted brand name.
In summary, it is argued that a definition or categorization of
serious games must address or provide a means to overcome all
the arguments and issues discussed and considered above to
ensure that all serious games technologies, applications and envi-
ronments created by all players involved in serious games research
and development (academics, researchers, educators, developers,
practitioners, etc.) are indeed identified as being serious games.
As presented in the next section, the serious games continuum
does just this through the amalgamation of three interconnected
sections or groupings along a continuum.
3. Serious games continuum: how far do you go?
In this article it is argued that the whole gamut of games, sim-
ulations, environments and digital media (e.g. mixed reality/med-
ia) created by all serious games players (R&D: academics,
researchers, educators, developers, practitioners, etc.) are identi-
fied as being serious games along a continuum and this can be di-
vided into three sections or ranges, as illustrated in Fig. 1; from
those with traditional gaming activities and characteristics (chal-
lenge, play, fun) at one end, through those with fewer traditional
game characteristics, to those with minimal traditional gaming
characteristics at the other end whose main purpose is to provide
experience and emotion to convey meaning.
While we are all pretty much in agreement about the first sec-
tion of the serious games continuum, that serious games encapsu-
late games with traditional gaming characteristics, such as,
challenge, play, fun, and that these games are for purpose, and as
discussed further below, for many, this first section is the most
prominent if not the only way to identify serious games. However,
for others, serious games encapsulate environments and digital
media that go beyond this grouping or range.
Using this continuum allows players (R&D) to frame and iden-
tify with a range of serious games that encapsulates their idea of
what serious games are, identify how they relate to other games,
environments and digital media that other players consider to be
serious games, provide an arena for players to reflect on their
own range of serious games that others may consider to be too nar-
row or limiting, and help to provide an arena to frame all players
that belong to the serious games movement and community. In
short, continuing the Indian parable, helping the blind men to see.
Herein, I propose the formal definition of serious games as
follows:
Serious games are digital games, simulations, virtual environments
and mixed reality/media that provide opportunities to engage in
activities through responsive narrative/story, gameplay or encoun-
ters to inform, influence, for well-being, and/or experience to convey
meaning. The quality or success of serious games is characterized by
the degree to which purpose has been fulfilled. Serious games are
identified along a continuum from games for purpose at one end,
through to experiential environments with minimal or no gaming
characteristics for experience at the other end.
3.1. Three ranges/groupings of the serious games continuum
3.1.1. First range/grouping: serious games as games for purpose
The first group of players would look no further than the first
section or grouping to identify serious games as being synonymous
with digital games with traditionally identified gaming character-
istics, such as, challenge, play, fun, but that they are games for pur-
pose (e.g. to learn and train, etc.) as identified by the shortest arrow
and range illustrated in Fig. 1.
Fig. 1. Continuum of serious games: from games for purpose to experiential environments for purpose.
T. Marsh/ Entertainment Computing 2 (2011) 61–68 63
Serious games falling in this category by-and-large can be iden-
tified through well-known definitions and classifications of video
games. For example, Salen and Zimmerman’s [22], p. 80, definition
of a game as ‘‘ ... a system in which players engage in an artificial
conflict, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome’’;
or Prensky’s [20] ‘‘six structural elements of games’’ as: rules, goals
and objectives, outcomes and feedback, conflict/competition/chal-
lenge/opposition, interaction, and representation or story, that pro-
vide an indication of serious games as games belonging to this
section. The only addition to these definitions for serious games
is that they are for purpose. Definitions of serious games clearly
falling into this section are for example, Zyda’s [36] definition (as
described earlier). It is acknowledged that digital commercial-of-
the-shelf (COTS) games with gaming activities, characteristics
(challenge, play, fun) and developed primarily for entertainment
may provide some kind of unintentional or incidental training or
enhancement purpose; for example, to improve motor sensory or
visual perception ability. When games such as these are intention-
ally used for purpose, they fall into this first section.
Well-known serious games falling in this section of the contin-
uum are for example, military associated serious games, such as,
America’s Army and Full Spectrum Warrior. These 3D games serve
a dual purpose, to train and educate US Army Soldiers and to help
with public relations and recruitment. Another example from this
genre is DARWARS Ambush! As illustrated in Fig. 2, the purpose of
DARWARS is to allow soldiers and marines to experience lessons
learned by others and to construct their own scenarios based upon
actual experience [5]. In addition, trainees operate ground and air
vehicles, use small arms and vehicle-mounted weapons, and com-
municate over radios.
Other serious games falling into this section are for example,
educational games such as Waker [34], shown in Fig. 3, developed
through the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Games Lab to help students
learn about the mathematical concepts of displacement and veloc-
ity [15]. Waker is a 2D puzzle-based game wrapped in a narrative.
Players figure out how to level-up through dreams to awaken a
child trapped inside a dream. The core puzzle gameplay and game
mechanic necessary to do this, is to figure out how to create or con-
struct appropriately inclined paths that will enable the player to
move up through levels (in the y-axis) by moving a corresponding
direction, distance and speed along the x-axis. Path construction is
akin to a constructionist learning approach. As the game proceeds
gameplay becomes progressively more complex. Waker has been
identified in studies and in on-line blogs as being challenging,
fun and entertaining game.
For others, this first section is too limiting and they would iden-
tify serious games as extending beyond this range, from being
solely games with traditional gaming characteristics for purpose
(as described above). But how far does it extend and what defines
this extension?
3.1.2. Second range/grouping: serious games with reduced gaming
characteristics
The next range in the continuum as identified by the middle
sized arrow in Fig. 1, encapsulates environments and digital media
for purpose with fewer traditional gaming characteristics. Hence,
players identifying with this range would view serious games as
extending from games for purpose to games, environments and
digital media for purpose. So what are some of the examples of
environments and digital media that belong in this category?
One example is Fatworld (see Fig. 4), a game about the politics of
nutrition developed by Bogost’s company Persuasive Games [19].
Fatworld is an entertaining game-like environment for purpose;
to explore the relationships between obesity, nutrition, and socio-
economics in the US. But it has reduced conflict/competition/chal-
lenge/opposition and therefore it is argued that it falls into this
second group.
Another well-know example of serious games (shown in Fig. 5)
that falls into this section of the continuum is the evolving gaming
simulation Virtual Iraq, developed by Albert ‘Skip’ Rizzo and team
(with original art assets from Full Spectrum Warrior), whose pur-
pose is to provide a tool to aid in the treatment of returning sol-
diers suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). In
Virtual Iraq the therapist largely controls the environment in an at-
tempt to recreate the soldier’s story so he is able to re-live and face
the cause of his anxiety in order to come to terms with it [21].
Other examples falling into this second section are the many
simulations for purpose created in the generic Second Life environ-
ment [26]. This is because of their reduced gaming characteristics,
mechanics and gameplay. Indeed, it is argued that some Second
Life-based environments with minimal, if any, gaming characteris-
tics may fall better into the final section. The UK-based Serious
Fig. 2. DAWARS Ambush! purpose: skills learning and training. Photographer Jason
Kaye.
Fig. 3. Waker: Game. Purpose: learn about mathematical concepts of displacement
and velocity. Reproduced with permission from Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Games Lab.
Fig. 4. Fatworld: Game. Purpose: learn about politics of nutrition. Reproduced with
permission from Ian Bogost, Persuasive Games, LLC. Atlanta, GA, USA.
64 T. Marsh/ Entertainment Computing 2 (2011) 61–68
Games Institute [28] uses Second Life as one of its key platforms,
for example, to develop and run virtual learning seminars.
As illustrated schematically in Fig. 6, a final example from this
grouping is a novel social musical exploration and creation system
referred to as the Human Mixer [6]. Developed by students on the
authors’ serious games module, it is a mixed reality/media system
blending the real with the virtual world through the capture of
physical body movements in the real world to interact with the vir-
tual world and help game players learn about the fundamentals of
music theory (e.g. pitch, time signature and dynamics in music)
through play and experimentation. It is a social, fun and playful
system but with reduced challenge and rules and therefore it is ar-
gued that it falls between the middle and final ranges (as described
next). Refer to Serious Games Singapore [31] for more details about
this and serious games resources and services.
3.1.3. Third range/grouping: serious experiential and cultural purposes
The final range in the continuum encapsulates environments
and digital media with minimal to no traditional gaming character-
istics whose purpose is to provide potentials or opportunities for
experience and emotion through encounters to provide meaning.
Examples falling into this grouping have purposes such as, to par-
ticipate in scenarios and understand past, present or even future
cultures and their morals, principles, values, ethics, customs, etc.
through experiential and emotional interaction with abstract, sim-
ulated, futuristic, etc. environments and digital media, supported
on a variety of systems from hybrid games and interactive art to
even ‘‘interactive movies and theatre’’.
The first example, shown in Fig. 7, Scalable City, developed by
Sheldon Brown’s Experimental Games Lab at UCSD, can be de-
scribed as a game-cum-interactive art installation, in which the
player plays with, and creates and disrupts an urban, suburban
and rural environment as they travel through and explore land-
scapes [3]. While there is no clear challenge nor straightforwardly
labeled as a game, the experience of interacting with Scalable City
is both fun and thought-provoking whose purpose can be de-
scribed well as a commentary on our culture and therefore, it is ar-
gued that it falls into this third grouping.
With reference to Fig. 8, another example falling into this group
is SnowWorld developed at the University of Washington’s HITLab
in collaboration with Harborview Burn Center [9]. SnowWorld was
designed to help in the reduction of pain for burn patients during
treatment and replacement of bandages. Burn patients, usually
wearing a head-mount display (HMD), explore and engage with a
virtual snow capped landscape and so helping to ‘‘put out the fire’’
by leaving less attention available to process pain signals.
The next example, shown in Fig. 9,The Night Journey is again
probably best described as a hybrid between a game environment
Fig. 5. Virtual Iraq: gaming simulation. Purpose: aid in the treatment of returning
soldiers suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Reproduced with
permission from Albert ‘‘Skip’’ Rizzo, Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT),
University of Southern California (USC), Los Angeles, CA, USA.
Fig. 6. Human mixer: social mixed reality/media system. Purpose: learn about music theory, such as, dynamics and time signatures. Reproduced from [6] with permission
from E.T. Khoo et al.
T. Marsh/ Entertainment Computing 2 (2011) 61–68 65
and interactive art. The Night Journey was the outcome of a
collaborative project between educator and designer Tracy Fuller-
ton, the artist Bill Viola and a development team from the Univer-
sity of Southern California’s (USC) EA Game Innovation Lab. Its
purpose is to provide experiences and spiritual meaning while
travelling and reflecting ‘‘to explore the universal story of an indi-
vidual mystic’s journey towards enlightenment’’ [7].
Finally, not so much one example, but a suite of examples and
research direction that neatly falls into this grouping’s philosophy
comes from the company WILL Interactive [35]. WILL Interactive
has created video simulations for serious experiential purposes,
to provide a message, train, inform and educate on a wide variety
of difficult life-issues as well as in-job training. Such as drug abuse,
Fig. 8. SnowWorld: experiential and exploratory environment. Purpose: to engage
burn patients’ attention in the game and distract their attention away from
bandages being redressed. Reproduced with permission from Hunter Hoffman,
University of Washington, Seattle, WA, USA.
Fig. 9. The Night Journey: Experiential and exploratory environment. Purpose:
travelling and reflecting – to explore an individual mystic’s journey towards
enlightenment. Reproduced with permission from Tracy Fullerton, Game Innova-
tion Lab, School of Cinematic Arts, University of Southern California (USC), Los
Angeles, CA, USA.
Fig. 7. Scalable City. Hybrid game and interactive art installation. Purpose: commentary on culture. Reproduced with permission from Sheldon Brown, Experimental Game
Lab, University of California at San Diego (UCSD), CA, USA.
66 T. Marsh/ Entertainment Computing 2 (2011) 61–68
sexual safety, health care, suicide prevention programs for the US
Army and training on hostage negotiations for the FBI. Players take
the lead character in ‘‘feature-length’’ ‘‘interactive movies’’ and
‘‘interactive storytelling’’ and make decisions that affect the out-
come through their interactive behavior modification system that
they call VEILS (Virtual Experience Immersive Learning
Simulations).
4. Discussion and future work
Recent technological innovations and developments, such as,
Nintendo’s Wii and Microsoft’s Kinect, have demonstrated a range
of emerging participatory games and physical activities; from
games for fitness and fun, to dance, running and jumping games
that fall mainly between the first and second ranges of the contin-
uum. Although, it is argued that the last grouping of the contin-
uum is where some of the major future technological and
artistic innovations and developments will be made. Through
some of today’s innovations we have already glimpsed what is,
and what will be, possible in the near future. Some of these will
feature novel body interactions like the Human Mixer [6] and
Microsoft’s Kinect while others will innovatively extend what is
currently available. For example, similar to Fullerton’s and Viola’s
The Night Journey who have pushed the boundaries of game en-
gines and shown us what is possible by creating a truly innova-
tive, experiential and experimental environment; and WILL
Interactive whose many tiles for purposes from law enforcement,
drug abuse, sexual safety, health care, have pushed the envelope
towards the creation of ‘‘interactive movies’’ and ‘‘interactive sto-
rytelling’’. To aid and inform development of future serious games
in this direction, methodologies and approaches are being fine-
tuned to support design, development and assessment of narra-
tive, scenarios and stories, for example, using activity theory
based approaches [16].
To some extent it can be argued that the final grouping of the
continuum can be considered to be a continuation of, or a recon-
nection to, a research agenda that has its roots in the simulation,
virtual environment and virtual reality (VR) movements and com-
munities. For example, as demonstrated in the visionary work of
Brenda Laurel and colleagues reframing virtual worlds as theatre
[11], informing their design from film [12,18] or the creation of
serious games as ‘‘interactive movies’’ by WILL Interactive that
has its roots in simulation going back to 1994. In addition, consider
for example the following commentary and proposal from a decade
ago, before the term Serious Games had been linked to computer,
video or digital games, which advocates an experiential research
agenda for serious purpose(s):
‘‘To a large extent the VR community has been designing virtual or
mediated environments for experience for some time. Consider for
example potential applications and scenarios that may benefit from
enhanced user experience. From education: history and geography
– enable users to visit different places or past civilizations and
experience them first hand; training: fire fighting, surgical, etc. –
induce a feeling of concern or perhaps agitation and fear of the risks
attached to the task at hand, flight simulator – feel what it’s like to
take the controls of a 747 passenger airline; entertainment: become
a character and feel the emotions of either interacting with the vir-
tual world and with other characters or as an invisible observer
(spectator) moving in-between the unfolding story, action or/and
narration; engineering: vehicle design – go beyond ergonomic
assessments and feel/experience what it’s like to sit behind the
wheel and drive a car that is yet to be built; psychotherapy: treat-
ment of phobias – allow patients to overcome their fears through
gradual exposure to the cause of their anxiety; to e-commerce: in
a shopping mall or supermarket – absorb the atmosphere as you
pass by stores and through shopping aisles with ambient sounds
of check-out tills, eclectic muzak and announcements of price
reductions’’ Marsh [13,14].
The important difference today is that the once hugely expen-
sive technologies and platforms to realize such applications, envi-
ronments and experiences such as these, are now widely available,
and through digital development tools, environments and game
engines we can realize all of the above examples in less time and
at a fraction of the cost.
5. Conclusion
This article provides a critique of the term serious games, iden-
tifies problems associated with the term and identifies limitations
in definitions of serious games. In particular, it argues that not all
game characteristics, such as, challenge, fun and play are appropri-
ate descriptions or labels for all serious games. The consequence of
this is a fragmented and unconnected movement wherein, at best,
factions or sub-groups begin to be formed and at worst, separate or
detach themselves completely from the wider serious games com-
munity. This could potentially have a detrimental effect on future
research and development collaborations, and so seriously damage
the serious games movement. Hence, to appropriately describe and
define serious games, it is argued that a way forward is to identify
and frame serious games beyond characteristics that are largely
associated with and borrowed from video games.
To address these issues this article proposed a definition and a
way to frame serious games technologies, applications and envi-
ronments created by all players involved in serious games research
and development (academics, researchers, educators, developers,
practitioners, etc.) along a continuum of game characteristics.
From those with traditional gaming activities and characteristics
(challenge, play, fun) at one end, through those with fewer tradi-
tional game characteristics, to those with minimal traditional gam-
ing characteristics at the other end whose main purpose is to
provide experience and emotion to convey meaning.
Using this continuum allows players (R&D) to frame and iden-
tify with a range of serious games that encapsulates their idea of
what serious games are, identify how it relates to other games,
environments and digital media that other players consider to be
serious games, provide an arena for players to reflect on their
own range of serious games that others may consider to be too nar-
row or limiting, and help to provide an arena to frame all players as
belonging to the serious games movement and community. In
addition, it helps in identifying characteristics for the design and
assessment of serious games.
Acknowledgement
The research described herein was funded in-part through the
Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Games Lab by the Media Development
Authority (MDA), Singapore. Thanks to the Waker development
team. I am grateful to the following for permission to reproduce
images within this article: Ian Bogost, Sheldon Brown, Tracy
Fullerton, Hunter Hoffman, Jason Kaye and Albert ‘Skip’ Rizzo.
Thanks also to all my students from my Serious Games class
(2007–2011) at the National University of Singapore (NUS) for
assessment and critique on the serious games continuum.
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68 T. Marsh/ Entertainment Computing 2 (2011) 61–68
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