At GALA partner IRIT, a computer science research laboratory part of the University of Toulouse (France), we are designing and studying Serious Games. But we are also greatly interested in their history: where does “Serious Games” comes from? How old are they? What was the first “Serious Game”? Although these are all good questions, today we are starting by the basics: the origin of the “Serious Game” name.

A short history of the “Serious Game” oxymoron

We can trace the use of the term “Serious Game” back to the Renaissance. Neo-Platonists used the term “serio ludere” to refer to the use of light-hearted humour in literature dealing with serious matters (Manning, 2004). A similar idea can be found in the Swedish novel “Den allvarsamma leken”, whose English title is “The Serious Game” (Soderberg, 2001). Written in 1912, this novel tackles the delicate topic of adultery. The ‘playful’ side of cheating is put in opposition with the ‘serious’ consequences of adultery. Here, the “Serious Game” oxymoron stresses the differences between adultery and the usual definition of games, such as the one coined by Huinzingua (1951) :

“a free activity standing quite consciously outside ‘ordinary’ life as being ‘not serious’, but at the same time absorbing the player intensely and utterly.”

A similar use of the “Serious Game” oxymoron can be used to describe the professional practice of games and sports. For example, in the autobiographical “Not Dark Yet: A Very Funny Book About a Very Serious Game”, Mike Harfield (2008) tells about his 30 year long career as a professional cricket player.

The first use of the “Serious Game” oxymoron with a meaning close to its current use seems to be in “Serious Games”, a book written by Clark Abt (1970). Abt is a researcher who worked in an U.S. research laboratory during the cold war (Abt Associates, 2005). One of his goals was to use games for training and education. He actually designed several computer games such as T.E.M.P.E.R. (Raytheon, 1961). This game was used by military officers to study the Cold War conflict on a worldwide scale. But in his book, Abt also provides examples of “non-digital” Serious Games, such as math-related games to be used in schools. Abt also gives a clear definition of “Serious Games”:

“Games may be played seriously or casually. We are concerned with serious games in the sense that these games have an explicit and carefully thought-out educational purpose and are not intended to be played primarily for amusement. This does not mean that serious games are not, or should not be, entertaining.”

Another example of a “non-digital” game explicitly labelled as “Serious Game” is presented in the book “The New Alexandria Simulation: A Serious Game of State and Local Politics” (Jansiewicz, 1973). This book explains how to play a game designed to teach the basics of the U.S. political mechanisms. Despite its age, this game is still used in classrooms, thanks to several reissues since 2004. It is also interesting to note that Jansiewicz kept his game in a non-digital format,because he thinks that only human interactions can convey the complexity of politics (Jansiewicz, 2011). Kahn & Perez (2009) have conducted a study on this game and observed that it improved the learning outcome for students in an “Introduction to American Politics” course.

Another example of “Serious Games” used as an oxymoron is the title of an artistic exhibition held in the Barbican Art Gallery from 1996 to 1997. The companion book of this exhibition (Graham, 1996) presents the work of eights artists who sought to make a link between video games and modern art. One of these artists, Regina Corwell, created an interactive art piece to ask if video games can be used as a mean of artistic expression:

“If we shift from the fun of games with their overt or covert messages about power, speed, command and control to those same messages delivered for expediency and with urgency by the military and to the efficiency of the office workplace and the various heritage in consumer culture, are art and culture ready to squarely face this complex mosaic?”

This latter example limits the scope of “Serious Games” to video games, in a similar fashion to most current definitions of Serious Games (Michael & Chen, 2005; Zyda, 2005). Indeed, all these definitions seem to be influenced by the vision of Ben Sawyer and his white paper entitled “Serious Games: Improving Public Policy through Game-based Learning and Simulation.” (Sawyer & Rejeski, 2002). As the title suggests, this paper is a call to use the technology and knowledge from the entertainment video game industry to improve game-based simulations in public organisations. However, this paper does not mention the oxymoron “Serious Games” one single time apart from in its title. Indeed, Sawyer first wrote his paper under the title “Improving Public Policy through Game Based Learning and Simulations.” But his colleague David Rejeski felt that this title lacked something. Rejeski was aware of a book entitled “Serious Play” (Schrage, 1999), which details how private companies use simulations to stimulate innovation. In reference to this book, Rejeski decided to modify the title of Sawyer’s white paper to include the oxymoron “Serious Games.” This paper was quickly followed by the creation of the “Serious Games Initiative”, an association to promote the use of games for serious purposes. Thus, the oxymoron “Serious Games” was gaining some momentum in the minds of many people (Sawyer, 2009). By chance, 2002 was also the release date of America’s Army, a game that Sawyer considers as “[…] the first successful and well-executed serious game that gained total public awareness” (Gudmundsen, 2006). The conjunction of America’s Army’s popular success and Sawyer & Rejeski’s efforts to promote such games, makes us identify 2002 as the starting point of the “current wave” of Serious Games.

Later, Sawyer refined his definition of “Serious Games” to

“any meaningful use of computerized game/game industry resources whose chief mission is not entertainment”

(Sawyer, 2007). Michael Zyda, who participated in the development of America’s Army, proposed a similar definition (Zyda, 2005) :

“A mental contest, played with a computer in accordance with specific rules, that uses entertainment, to further government or corporate training, education, health, public policy, and strategic communication objectives.”

Nowadays, most Serious Games that are released tend to follow this line by sticking to the use of digital games, instead of following the broader definition of “Serious Games” for both digital and non-digital games introduced in the 70’s.


One Response

  1. That was exactly what I was searching for! It provided valuable insights into the origins of the term serious games, which aligns perfectly with my own research. Thanks for sharing this informative piece!

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