SXSW: Serious Games: Can Learning Be Hard Fun?

Kevin Kelly
K. Kelly|03.20.07

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SXSW: Serious Games: Can Learning Be Hard Fun?

When you combine the words "serious" "learning" and "hard" in the same sentence, chances are you're going to end up with something that gamers won't like. But that's what the Serious Games Initiative is all about, developing games for "non-entertainment" purposes. Of course, the problem is games for non-entertainment tend to scare people away faster than the phrase "edutainment."

That's the main problem facing Serious Games, how do they make it seem like they aren't hiding the broccoli under the meatloaf? All of the games shown off were educational in one form or another, having to do with zapping cancer cells inside the human body, or how to interact with people in the workplace. Seriously, there is a game about the proper way to run a meeting, collaborate with coworkers, and generally function in an office. Too bad it's not running on the Unreal Engine. Zing!

But how do they make them fun? That's what they've been struggling with since the creation of the phrase "serious games" (which still sounds sort of corny to us). Huge budgets are being spent on these games, trying to get them to look like Gears of War, yet teach you about the proper way to brush your teeth at the same time. Actually, a first-person shooter where you are creeping stealthily through a dank and infested mouth, trying to frag cavity creatures might be pretty fun. Anyone developing that?

One panelist mentioned that any game should, by definition, be fun ... and we tend to agree with her. Although during the Q&A session one audience member stood up and wondered why so much emphasis was being put on the graphics and the gameplay in some of these titles, because given a choice between a textbook and a game, wouldn't a kid chose the game, no matter how craptastic, every time? He had a good point, because we'd rather play Let's Count Sand than thumb through 'Chemistry 101: The World and You.'

So the developers are riding the line between equal parts fun and equal parts learning, often on budgets of $10,000 or less. There are a few big-budget projects out there in the works, but based on what we saw in the presentation, the graphics are still pretty much circa PlayStation One, at best. If they could only stumble into something like Oregon Trail, a game that didn't blow you away with graphics, but had fun gamplay elements that sort of tricked you into learning, then maybe they'd have something.

Until then, these games remain ... serious.
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