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Serious games stigmatized in and out of the industry, says Schell

Serious Play Conference keynoter Jesse Schell says games that change are the fastest growing part of the industry, but run into perception problems

The rise of smartphones and tablets is providing a platform for more than just free-to-play games. Schell Games founder Jesse Schell says it's also making serious games the fastest growing part of the industry, even if people don't always recognize that. Schell, who was today named as a keynote presenter for the 2013 Serious Play Conference, spoke with GamesIndustry International yesterday about perception problems the field is facing.

"Oh sure," Shell said when asked if serious gaming carried a stigma. "First of all, they're really hard to do well, and as a result, there are a lot of really bad ones out there. On top of that, there's often a kind of inauthenticity that surrounds these kinds of games. They make promises about taking this boring thing and making it fun, but if they fail, you just go, 'This really is bad.'... Teaching is really hard. Making an entertaining game is really hard. And now we're proposing that we're going to do both of them simultaneously. It's like doing stunt riding on a motorcycle and juggling, and now I'm going to do them at the same time. And hey, you screwed up, because it's really hard. But when you do it right, it's frickin' amazing!"

It doesn't help that serious games is an often misunderstood corner of an often misunderstood medium, Schell said.

"Even to this day, you're at a party and people ask what you do. You say, 'I'm a game developer,' and they say, 'Do you make those really violent games?' It would be like if everybody who made movies when they said, 'I make movies,' people said, 'Oh, like pornography? Is that what you make?' It's kind of like that," Schell explained.

That problem has been compounded by people historically misrepresenting the success they've had in the field, Schell said, and a lack of conclusive research into the effects violent games have had on children.

"The whole thing makes people nervous, because how do they know if this thing's really doing any good for anybody," Schell said.

That's one shortcoming Schell hopes to address, in part through his studio's iPad game Play Forward: Elm City Stories. Created in conjunction with Yale University, Play Forward is an educational tool created with the hope of preventing HIV infection among ethnic minority adolescents. It's also the subject of a multiyear longitudinal study to see what change, if any, there is in HIV infection rates among kids who played the game.

Although most of what Schell Games produces fits into the serious games category, Schell prefers the term "transformational games." The name is a catch-all for games that inspire change in their players, but it's a spectrum that covers everything from a game that teaches French to something like Spec Ops: The Line.

"It's not like there's some hard line between fun games and transformational games," Schell said. "It doesn't need to be a weakness; it can be a real strength. That's why people got excited about Spec Ops. It's a change that feels powerful, because that game forces you to confront what you are truly like. And when you're forced to reflect not on something external, but on what you yourself are like, it can definitely be something that promotes change in yourself, which I think is exciting."

Another issue facing serious games is the business model. Just as the conventional gaming industry has been upended by the arrival of connected mobile devices, so too is the serious gaming business.

"If you're talking about direct-to-consumer, right now it can be very difficult to sell educational or transformational games to anybody over the age of 6, at least in the American market," Schell said. "But I think we have a situation where schools are about to get an avalanche of tablets. So there's going to be this new market of selling games to schools, which will be a real market. And on top of that, you look at the way self-education is beginning to happen and more and more people are beginning to take hold of their own education. Slowly I think we see the door opening for transformational games sold direct-to-consumers."

The Serious Play Conference will take place August 20-22 at the DigiPen Institute of Technology in Redmond, Washington. In addition to Schell, the event will have a second keynote speaker in Atari founder Nolan Bushnell, who will discuss how using gaming technology can accelerate the learning process for students.

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Latest comments (6)

Rick Lopez Illustrator, Graphic Designer 8 years ago
Regarding the photo... I love old school board games like mousetrap. I never want to see them die.
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Tim Carter Designer - Writer - Producer 8 years ago
Serious games have been hijacked by the science community. And there is a particular hubris among those scientists that take on these projects.

While games can be used to teach science (and other things), games are not a science. They are an artform. A syntax.

Until the scientists admit they don't know how to *design* games well - since they aren't artists - serious games will flounder.

When the science community does documentary films, it defers to filmmakers and obeys the syntax of film (which, like any other artform, has never been scientifically proven to work). It doesn't walk in, swaggering around as if it knows everything.

Until the quants stop trying to run the show, and defer to game designers, serious games will continue to be uninspiring, dull and ineffective.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Tim Carter on 30th May 2013 8:22pm

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Gareth Wilson Design Director, SUMO Digital8 years ago
[/quote] games are not a science. They are an artform. A syntax. [/quote]

Some games are an artform. But the vast majority are designed products. They're designed to a brief to create a product that satisfies a need (shooter, racer, puzzler etc). And there's nothing wrong with that :) they can still be beautiful things that make people happy, just like an iPhone or well designed mountain bike.

Very few are art. Anything that tries to convey the emotion of the creator as opposed to satisfy a designed need is art. Art doesn't fill a need, the artist doesn't really care if you like it or not, whether it sells, that's not the point of it. He's opening a window into his soul, conveying a particular emotion - loss, regret, hubris, wonder, hope - he's GOT to get it out. You might not connect with it and that's fine. Journey is art, Limbo is getting close to art. Most music is art. Advert jingles are design.

The issue with educational games is poor design not lack of art. I agree its a real shame more progress isn't being made in this area, one of my first jobs in the industry was working with Manchester Met on educational games to teach deprived kids in Salford basic maths skills. It was fascinating how open these kids were to learning using games and how terrible the software was that was on the market. In one month using DarkBasic on my own I'd written something better than most of the paid for software out there. If your interested the paper's here

The problem in the past has been there is simply no money in the sector. Its tough to convince a school governor to spend money on computer games over books and gym equipment. He's worried about the negative press angle. But hopefully as Jesse says with free to play taking off the better games can get into schools, get popular and make some money back through microtransactions.

Edited 4 times. Last edit by Gareth Wilson on 31st May 2013 7:06am

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Show all comments (6)
Games can teach and they all do. It's just that they teach different thing than in "serious games". In Finland boys have much stronger English skills than girls. That's because boys play more games. Kids learn about mythological monsters, medieval and contemporary weapons, urban planning... In LBP they learn game development skills like level design, scripting, point audio, advancing story with video clips...
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Bonnie Patterson Narrative Designer, Writer 8 years ago
Just as humble pencil and paper Dungeons & Dragons churned out a legion of medieval weaponry experts, anything that catches someone's interest is going to inspire them to learn more. I'm sure we all know someone who's never been near the military but knows detailed real-world statistics and specifications for every gun in existence - who just happens to be an avid Battlefield player. And more directly educating, we have the Total War series, with its Encyclopaedia stuffed with actual facts as well as gameplay.

Moreover, the most brilliant programmers come from gaming backgrounds, just as writers come from avid readers. A game doesn't need the digital equivalent of a kipper tie to be educational.
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Al Nelson Producer, Tripwire Interactive8 years ago
1. "inauthenticity" yes, that is the word I was looking for.
2. Sad that so many industry people are not more familiar with game theory, the science of conflict.
3. The term "Serious Games" has itself to blame for choosing a name that picks a fight right from the start. I don't make "serious games" but I am deadly serious about the games I make, despite your implication to the contrary. Try me an see.
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