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Bogost: Let's make 'earnest' games, not 'serious games'
Bogost: Let's make 'earnest' games, not 'serious games' Exclusive
June 17, 2013 | By Leigh Alexander

June 17, 2013 | By Leigh Alexander
More: Console/PC, Social/Online, Serious, Programming, Art, Design, Exclusive

Where have games for change -- "or serious games, or whatever you want to call them," in the words of Persuasive Games author, academic and game designer Ian Bogost -- gone wrong? That was the topic of Bogost's talk at the 2013 Games for Change conference in New York City, attended by Gamasutra.

"Real systems thinking assumes that simple answers are always wrong, but games for change, or serious games, are often prevented as superficially transformative affairs," he suggests.

For example, Molleindustria's Oiligarchy, which aims to explore issues of peak oil and the global petroleum industry through games, raised an interesting question for Bogost when colleague Paolo Pedercini, the game's creator, provided an online postmortem of the game.

With text and images, Pedercini devised an explanation of the themes he attempted to represent through the game. "For him, this postmortem is necessary because it would increase the game's transparency, make it more journalistic, and allow the intention he had as a creator to shine through," Bogost explains.

But there's a flip side, there: If Oiligarchy can't do the work of talking about oil, and the supposedly-outmoded medium of text and image are necessary or better, then why make games like Oiligarchy in the first place?

"It risks becoming an aesthetic exercise," Bogost says, "a jaunty cap atop the normal, real media people actually take seriously."

He describes his own Fatworld project, designed to explore problems with the food industry, nutrition and obesity, as a terrible game. Yet the U.S. Government's Apps for Healthy Kids project has been enormously successful despite being similarly, in his view, aesthetically offensive and poorly designed from the standpoint of game quality.

This is because "it's functioning on a different rhetorical register," Bogost says. "It's not trying to make an argument about how something works; it's intended to give you the idea that we are working on a problem. It's the White House trying to be 'technological' in the app age."

When it comes to projects like this, the idea often seems more important than the games, he worries. "When people talk about 'changing the world with games,' in addition to checking for your wallet, perhaps you should also check to see if there are any games involved in those world changing games, or the concept of an unrealized potential we might someday meet."

"The dirty truth about most of these serious games, the one that nobody wants to talk about in public, is they're not really that concerned about being games," Bogost adds. "This is mostly because games are hip, they make appealing peaks in your grant application, they offer new terrain, undiscovered country, they give us new reasons to pursue existing programs in order to keep them running."

Most serious games are no more used for gameplay than Marcel Duchamp's "Fountain" (the famous contextualized urinal) is used to urinate in, he suggests. More valuable to the cultural impact argument would be games that really want to be games, and that genuinely want to pursue the subjects they claim to pursue, that do not exist primarily to attain attention, secure lectures or book grants.

"Maybe what we want are not 'serious' games, but earnest games," he reflects. "Games that aren't just instrumental or opportunistic in their intentions."

For example, games like Papers, Please, Cart Life or Dys4ia were made to be played and to illuminate the subjects that their creators wanted to make games about. "It's actually a little weird to talk about using games for social change or seriousness in the abstract," he says. "We don't talk about other media that way. We just kind of assume it's possible: I want to make a film about something, I figure out a way to make a film about the thing I want to make a game about."

"Ten years hence, I don't know if we need 'games for change' as frames; I don't know if they're useful anymore," Bogost adds. "I think we want something like 'earnest games,' games that really mean it, games that aspire to do justice to their topic and to the medium of games themselves. These are games that we really want to play, that we can play more than once and that still put a lump in our throats. They stop us short because what we really found in them, not what we read about them."

"They do it because their creators were generous enough to want to speak to us, but went to the stupid, improbable, absurd lengths of building these rusty machines that are games, and offering that to us instead. We play not because they make good headlines, but because they meant it. Let's make those games instead."

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Ramin Shokrizade
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This is my chief complaint about the current "gamification" movement: they aren't really games. I learned so much from Civilization, and that was not a "serious game". It was just a great game with some very serious concepts wrapped in it successfully. One of the concepts in that game, Global Warming, was WAY ahead of it's time (1991). I haven't been able to get anyone at Firaxis to tell me why this was removed from recent iterations, but Civ really set the stage, in my mind, for what Bogost is saying here.

You may notice that I try to slowly work some fairly serious topics into my discussion of business models, and I guess this makes me suspect sometimes, that I'm not here just to make money like I should be. Well, I don't see those two conditions (making money and promoting change) as exclusive conditions.

Jonathan Kyle
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I think you answered your own question about Civilization. Global Warming was a conceptually unique addition to Civ IV but actually quite frustrating for the player, which I would suspect is why they didn't include it in Civ V - it didn't add to the gameplay.

Jordan Laine
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In Civ Rev (for iOS at least) in the 'Scenario Generator' you can adjust the world's climate. I have no idea what it affects or how as it has never come up in any of the games I have played (mostly randomly maps).

Andrzej Marczewski
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To pick up on the gamification comment (and understanding the sentiment towards it from many), it is not about making games - it is about using things that make games engaging and applying them to other things. Good or bad, that is the current definition. When we talk about serious games, we are talking about games with a purpose other than entertainment or enjoyment. They are games that are focused on business objectives, or education etc. Of course, if they are not enjoyable they are most likely not going to work!

I love Ians take on it here, makes a great deal of sense, if you make a game, serious or not, it still has to be a game!

Ramin Shokrizade
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@Andrzej: As you know I'm not on board with the "current definition" of gamification, which I understand makes it a bit harder to have a conversation about it. The way I attempted to define it in my 2010 "Third Tier of Game Development" seems to run counter to the prevailing approach. Maybe I need a new word for this parallel but different concept.

Andrzej Marczewski
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I am a little schizophrenic on the whole definition thing. On the one hand I have added to the pool of definitions in my own way

20130311/188218/Whats_the_difference_between_Gamification_and_Seri ous_Games.php) on the other I hate the definition as it is technically wrong (

I am leaning more and more towards using game thinking to umbrella all of these ideas now.

Ramin Shokrizade
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@Andrzej: I've been following your work for some time now. I completely encourage your work, I just fear that there are a wide range of applications and methodologies of gamification and that in the process of defining those systems we are falling upon too narrow a scope and as such may be restricting advancement.

Michael Ball
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Someone working on the business side of video games that actually KNOWS about video games? BLASPHEMY!!!

Jeremy Alessi
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Serious games work well when they focus on the tactical "how to" type stuff. When the game becomes merely an aesthetic experience, you know you've gone wrong.

I've made a handful of serious games for large organizations and the best ones are good at replacing dangerous, expensive, or otherwise unpleasant real world situations.

Attempting to debate socio-economic mechanics with a game is fine but, if it's a single player game made by one developer in an attempt to educate, then it will never be dynamic enough to compete with conversation.

Now, if we start talking multiplayer communicative building then games start to help. Think of the episodes of Star Trek TNG where they use the Holodeck to argue court cases or recreate hard to remember events. By working as a group with game mechanics providing power rather then challenge, people can solve some serious problems.

James Hofmann
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I think the biggest issue is that designers tend to shortcut into a tautological system - here is a truth as I understand it, accept my truth and you will master the game. It's a criticism applicable to the majority of video games, but is particularly easy with respect to games containing ideological goals. We can make Potemkin villages very easily and with little risk, but they don't stand up to player abuse. We know it and the players know it. Games don't get broken because the players are evil, but because the game isn't truthful.

Fortunately, we have options for treating design more conversationally and iterating over systems until they approach a more incontrovertible state. It's just much more uncertain to do things that way, since the results are an unknown.

Alan Jack
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I think there's two inherent issues with "games for change" - one being that games are exploratory by nature, while "change" tends to have a lot of direction. "Games for awareness" is a better way to think of it, but then you have to either go down the "abstract representation" route, or be prepared to show both sides of the coin. If you were raising awareness of corruption in politics by making a game about politics, for example, you couldn't show corrupt politicians always collapsing, you'd have to show them getting away with it (and their riches) 90% of the time, or it doesn't sit right.

Which leads me to the next point, and that's that games are, by their nature, a delineated "safe" space of interactions. Now, this is a point for some debate, and you could point to something like Telltale's Walking Dead series and say "There's an emotionally draining, harrowing and generallly not 'safe' environment within a game" but I'd argue that it represents more of a bit of traditional narrative that's dropped into a game to spice things up. The issue isn't that games have to be "safe" but that people who play them will always consider it to be a "safe" environment until you pull the rug out from under them. So you have to always expect that if you're making a game about any moral or ethical choices, players will often not be in their everyday mindset when playing.

That's not to say either issue is an insurmountable challenge, and I look forward to some day seeing both tackled - but there's a lot of very fundamental issues with "Games for Change" that mean I think it'll be a while before the sub-genre really blossoms. "Earnest Games" might be one step towards that, but again I'd argue that it sounds like it carries a little too much of the auteur's bias. "Thoughtful Games" or "Games That Explore Issues" are more the sort of thing I think would be appropriate.

Jean-Michel Vilain
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Seriously, let's just make games.

Michael Joseph
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Do you mean games with no explicit purpose except to entertain and/or make money? Those are purposes.

Surely you don't mean that we should not have discussions?

Seriously, I don't understand what you mean beyond the pointlessly obvious. People are already "just making games" and will continue to do so.

Dustin Chertoff
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I don't think you would find much argument against just making good games from serious game developers. I'm pretty sure all of us want to do that. But we are constrained by two things: money to develop a game and client-understanding of what a game could be.

On the money side, I think it would be very interesting to poll the serious game developers on who is paying for their development costs. My guess would be it's overwhelmingly from funding agencies for research. Next up would be private businesses that contract the development of a serious game to meet some internal training need. I'm doubtful many people are getting money to build a game that only has the potential (albeit positive) side effect of someone learning something. Instead, you are left with already existing game development costs.

On the client side, I'm not sure that the people asking for serious games fully understand how to effectively use a game yet. There is still a tendency to just recreate a traditional approach but in a 3d FPS/RTS environment. Essentially, the content is driving how the game is developed, rather than letting engaging game play drive what content is appropriate.

Maybe the solution is to move to much smaller, highly focused games that encourage a lot of replay, rather than trying to create a larger game experience.

Curtiss Murphy
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"Maybe the solution is to move to much smaller, highly focused games that encourage a lot of replay, rather than trying to create a larger game experience."

That's a winning argument Dustin! Create relatively small, focused games that teach a specific set of concepts.

Serious Games generally stick to a simple plan - use game techniques (Flow, Simplicity, etc) to teach something. The player generally wants to learn the material and hopes the game will be more effective and entertaining than reading a book. The player & designer have the same goals - so the contract stays intact.

On the other hand, there's Games for Change, which can struggle when they become nothing more than thin coatings of gameplay paint, on top of dogma. Then, it's just a matter of time before the player realizes the designer's goal doesn't match their own, and the contract falls apart.

Dustin Chertoff
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G4C in particular will always struggle with the dogma issue when the player is on the other side of an argument. A climate-change denier is likely to view a climate change game as dogmatic, while a climate-change believer might view it as well designed. The very nature of G4C to try and modify player behavior (or increase awareness of alternate behavior) means there will be people that disagree with the game; it calls out the player and says, you should change if you don't agree with the premise of this game.

On the other hand, you could design a very simple game that shows the effect of global warming on a fictional population. You can model sea levels rising and the effect it has on crops due to changing weather patterns. But that won't change the player's belief that climate change is or is not happening in the real world. You might have a good game about the effects of climate change, but it isn't going to change the behavior of people that don't believe in the initial premise: climate change is real.

Simply put, a player can understand the effects of an event without believing that the event is actually happening.

Michael Joseph
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"A climate-change denier is likely to view a climate change game as dogmatic"

I think this points out one of the difficulties in trying to educate folks today. Telling people the truth isn't enough. You have to deconstruct a lot of layers of mis-education and conditioning.

Parents and educators are competing with media producers and opinion pushers (i.e PR firms) who are like modern day preachers happily interpreting the will and the word of God to the illiterate masses. And Parents and educators are too often unfit to teach a dog let alone a child. It's a cycle.

If our way of teaching wasn't so passive & creatively stifling, if we followed the hands on research model of education, people would have well developed critical thinking skills and they'd have armor to protect themselves against the fast talking of professional liars.

Buy your kid a microscope for x-mas and a telescope for their birthday. Kids should be encouraged to examine the natural world at the earliest possible ages. Examine the world with them... maybe you'll recover some of your own lost curiosity. There's something seriously wrong with a system of education that involves hours of sitting and memorizing "facts" from a book. That's not learning. That's stealing their souls.

p.s. and for goodness sake throw out the television. make a new project together from every week. learn a foreign language together. learn a musical instrument together. play less games... we have an obsessive perhaps pathological preoccupation with entertainment and fun.

Dustin Chertoff
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In which case, instead of making games focused on changing adult and young adult behavior towards a particular topic (i.e. climate change, ethical decisions, etc.), we should be creating games that emphasize critical thinking and analysis skills for early elementary kids.

However, the kid is not the one with the purchase power, it's the parent. So if your game attempts to teach a skill that the parent doesn't agree with because of their own bias or understanding, you might never reach your intended audience in the first place.

Mike Engle
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"If Oiligarchy can't do the work of talking about oil, and the supposedly-outmoded medium of text and image are necessary or better, then why make games like Oiligarchy in the first place?"

Taken the wrong way, this question implies that games shouldn't be made unless they are the absolute final word on a subject and that nothing else can be said.

Hopefully that's not what's being implied (because text isn't "necessary" to communicate Oiligarchy's message; it's simply the author of a creative work clarifying and perhaps elaborating on his intended message.)

Ian Bogost
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Of course not.

Michael Joseph
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As far as education goes, I think games can be effective at exposing people to new cultures, new philosophies and ideas, and instilling values (for better or for worse). These are core strengths of books too.

But I don't think games are good at teaching science. No reasonable person wants their own kids to be taught science through a game. I think we are lobotomizing ourselves with too much junk media. How else could we believe games for teaching science is a good idea? And if you're not actually teaching science in the game, then what are you teaching? Are you using games as a political tool in the guise of an education tool?

EDIT: I should clarify that this is another one of those situations where using the word "game" causes confusion. I think interactive software can be useful for explaining things but it doesn't teach scientific method or mindset. If the "game" is just saying "this is how and why X works" I think there's very limited value in that. Learning has to be more than memorizing factoids and accepting what we're told.

example of a non game
I think something like the above would be way more useful if it simulated the body and allowed you to... experiment on it to see the results in real time with of course the ability to "reset". As is, it seems mostly just a layered 3d model viewer.

Curtiss Murphy
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"But I don't think games are good at teaching science. No reasonable person wants their own kids to be taught science through a game."

Thou dost protest too much.

Science makes an excellent topic for games! Chemistry, physics, biology - WONDERFUL topics for games to provide goals, feedback, and balanced difficulty that guide learners through trial and error exploration as they uncover and solve complex problems. Done right, players are in flow AND learning.

Science is kids play. Now, building an engaging game around opening and closing doors on board a ship? That was a challenge.

[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Richard Schut
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i like your plea, looking for 'earnesty'

my 2 cents:

i think what makes a game a game is the sense of openness that it provides. playfulness as an expression of openness. whenever a game does change the world, it is because it provides openness to people: giving people or players the space to change 'themselves'

whenever a game has a strong 'hidden' meaning to educate, earn money or drill people, it will in itself close of openness in people.

i found this book inspiring:

Finite games as games who can be won (and are over then), infinite games as games that are played to 'play', interact, grow, discover yourself, there is no end. With life itself as the ultimate infinite game.

Makes sense?