Save the princess, slay the arch villain, explore the whole map… that’s all so commonplace. With the advance of gamification, we can use a game for many other purposes. Including serious stuff, in the manner of the aptly named “serious games”.
The dream goal of gamification is to make every experience fun. However, having fun in a serious game is not the goal, but just a tool to achieve other purposes: learning, communicating a message or an opinion, or making scientific headway, for example.
We won’t recount here the history of serious games since the first educational games in the mid-20th century. We will just settle for a highly poetic metaphor: serious games have flourished in the past years like a field of daisies at the dawn of spring.
Here are some examples:
The educational game
As we mentioned, using a fun experience in an educational system is far from being new and happens to be particularly well-suited in the context of evaluating and rewarding students’ progress, whether by giving stickers, gold stars, or excellent marks.
What recently turned the tide is the development of digital interfaces that enabled many improvements:
- The use of an avatar.
- The creation of an immersive visual universe.
- Immediate feedback without waiting for the next maths test the following Thursday.
The Voyage is a game developed for the Tasmanian Museum and Gallery at the end of 2015 and available online.
You are the Surgeon Superintendent on a ship taking convicts from London to Van Diemen’s Land – now known as Tasmania. Your role is to make sure as many convicts as possible reach the colony safe and healthy.
You alternate between different phases: getting the historical background (told in the voice of an old sea dog); making all sorts of decisions and choices, managing supplies, and checking on sick travelers; and mini-games like loading the ship or catching rats.
Beyond the fun (yes, this game is very well made and actually fun to play!), the interest of the game resides in the historical accuracy. The ships you choose at the beginning of the game are real ships. Same thing for the supplies you bring or the route you take.
The Australian National Maritime Museum also had the great idea to publish online additional resource materials to accompany this game. No doubt you’ll want to know more on the topic once you’re hooked by the game.
The engaged game
Using a virtual environment allows a certain liberty of tone and topic. A game is consequently a very good medium to convey a serious or controversial message.
And in the kingdom of controversy, the oil lobby rules.
In Oligarchy, you embody a director of an oil company. If it’s always been your dream to corrupt politicians, push through legal amendments or to “stop alternative energies and increase the oil addiction”, then you’ll get your fill!
If, on the other hand, you do not hold the oil lobby close to your heart, then you’ll understand the irony of this game in which you’ll suffer the pressure of the market pushing you to crush everyone and everything with your drilling machines.
Another highly sensitive issue is terrorism. September 12th takes place in a Middle-East city inhabited by civilians and armed people.
Your aim is obviously to eliminate the terrorist menace. But your “precision bombing” will inevitably cause collateral damages. Any civilian seeing another civilian killed by you will take up arms and become a terrorist. You’ll experience the spiral of violence and discover that in this vicious circle there is no way to win the game.
The science game
Video game players who make the cover of the prestigious science magazine Nature! Here is something that would have Sheldon Cooper go green with envy.
Those players participated in Foldit, in which the goal is to fold a protein. Hardly the most useful or exciting subject for a game, you might think. Well, proteins are at the very base of life and the way they fold determines their function. So the stakes are actually huge.
Determining the tri-dimensional structure of proteins takes researchers a lot of time. So some of them decided to crowd-source this step. Or in other words, to assign a small part of the job to a big number of people.
“We believe that humans’ innate spatial reasoning ability makes it possible for non-experts to make useful contributions to this problem”, wrote Seth Cooper (not related to Sheldon, as far as we know), from Washington University and member of the team that created this project (1). Thus, users not trained in biology or chemistry got better results than some laboratories.
To make sure that the players persevere in a task that may seem unappealing and difficult, a number of gamification mechanisms have been brought into play:
- An interface where users earn points depending on the efficiency of their folding.
- A ranking based on the number of points.
- The possibility to play in teams and move up in this ranking.
And those methods have been successful! The team named “Contender” determined the structure of an enzyme linked to the AIDS desease. In only two weeks, they succeeded where science had been stuck for 15 years!
And yes, that’s huge! Because if we point an accusing finger at video games every time there is a shooting, we must in turn acknowledge their impact and contribution to such a major breakthrough!
(1)Seth Cooper, Proceedings of the 5th International Conference on the Foundations of Digital Games, p. 47, 2010.