The fall and fall of Serious Games

Serious games are dead. Long live serious games. One of the best measures of the buzzword is the frequency in which people search, blog or tweet about it. Unfortunately for term “Serious Games” the only way is down.

As one of the leading Serious Games studios in the UK, we’ve seen the number of new enquiries on the topic go down year on year since 2010. I don’t think anyone outside of the university circles got in touch with us this year saying they want a Serious Game. People come to us, asking for apps and simulations – they never say “we need a serious game”, they talk about digital solutions that would help them engage their audience. It’s never “we need a game to solve this”, its “how can we use what gaming does best to help solve this”.

Maybe it’s because of the economic down turn – maybe it’s because most Serious Games fail to deliver the Promised Land – or maybe it’s because Serious Games have now had their time. As with any innovation, it follows a bell curve and perhaps now in 2012 we are seeing the laggards, the last of the few people who think this has millage. And they happen to be mostly academics, people who by choice are often either far ahead of their time or desperately behind the times.

This is against a background of a booming gaming industry – in the last 3 years the number of new gaming start-ups has mushroomed – many more millions of people play for pleasure than they did a decade ago – but they are not playing for work, or are they?

There are many apps in the app store that combine a certain amount of gaming with real stuff – be it in health, finance, work/life balance, driving, studying, sports etc.

Certainly when you look around the web now, many more companies are experimenting with gaming mechanisms – aka Gamification. PlayGen has done many more Gamification projects in the last 12 months than any other type of development.

There is clearly a desire to improve engagement with a process, and one way to do this is to make it more playful.

But Gamification is not Serious Games I hear some cry! Really? So taking a process and using gaming mechanisms in order to increase its engagement cannot be called gamification or it can but it can’t be a serious game unless it’s bound to some 3d game engine? If that’s what it’s all about – semantics – my definition of a word or process against yours – then please tell me what is a ‘game’? Because, Life – as I see it – is a game.

So let’s not sit in our ivory towers and declare that serious games are not gamification or that learning games are not simulations – these arguments are nothing but academic psychobabble which amounts to no net improvement or progress. The app world is filled with useful things that people have created.  These apps are combining gaming with real world stuff – in the app world they’re simply called simulations or productivity tools or simply a health app or a sports app.

We should be talking a language more akin to consumer’s language and we should be focusing on showing the real value of digital products that combine game mechanisms and play to increase learning and engagement.

At PlayGen we are focusing on behavioural economics, on user experience, and on playful mechanisms – the future is certainly not the past and we do everything we can to stay ahead of the curve.

My advice is to keep up! If you’re the type of person who is still listening to the same music you liked when you were in your early teens and twenties, this advice is wasted on you. Clearly you cannot embrace change. If however you don’t mind checking out what the kids are doing these days, just peek at the new start-up scenes bubbling through from London to Berlin and San Francisco.

Nobody is talking about Serious Games – the kids have moved on. Their parents still trust simulations and simulation games. And the new creatives,  well the word on the block is gamification. But don’t get hooked on that too. Next year it’ll be something else. What won’t change is human nature, and our insatiable desire to ever increase digital into our very analogue lives.

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