Video games are changing as rapidly as our reliance on them, serving functions that go well beyond entertainment and escapism.

Just ask Katrin Becker, a Calgary-based expert on “serious games,” or games created to serve a purpose larger than simple recreation.

From education and training, to healthcare, simulations or social awareness, the term “serious games” cover any application designed without entertainment as a primary goal.

“To me, and a lot of other people in the field, whether or not you can call a thing a game is less important than what we’re doing with it,” says Becker, a computer science educator at Mount Royal University and the University of Calgary.


Becker says that gaming in the health industry is extremely well-received and accepted by everyone from administrators to practitioners, who recognized the power and potential serious games have for patient treatment.

“You could maybe imagine how one might build a game if you wanted to treat a fear of spiders, or something like that. A game would allow them to control their environment, and, little by little, add more of that thing that they’re afraid of,” says Becker.

Becker recalls a scenario in which burn victims who played a particular game required 50 per cent less pain medication because the game was able to distract their minds from the pain.

“That’s really quite significant, and all they do is put on the headset and play the game,” says Becker.

A recent study by the University of Cambridge suggests that mental health and the treatment of anxiety through virtual reality (VR) gaming is comparable in efficacy to face-to-face therapy.

Becker’s comments come after the Adtalem Global Education corporation and software company Arch Virtual were recognized by the Society for Simulation in Healthcare for their contributions to clinical education.

Their program, Virtual Reality Airways Lab, won best-in-show at this year’s International Meeting for Simulation in Healthcare in Los Angeles.

Semantics matter: Games hard to define

However, there are some criticisms and resistance to using game technology.

 “A lot of people in education still see games as frivolous and therefore bad,” says Becker.

She adds that labels have a lot to with the criticisms of the technology, and that in education in particular the word “simulation” can go a lot further than “game,” despite both the technology and rules behind them being identical.

Becker admits that while games are hard to define, the easy way to classify them are if they’re interactive, if they have rules and an ultimate goal. If so, they can be considered a game.

“There’s a grey area,” says Becker. “Is The Sims a game, or is it just a simulation? Is it a toy? You could argue both ways.”

Big game, big budget

One challenge for developers of serious games is that budgets are typically much smaller for their development compared to entertainment-based games.

“Serious games have a different business model,” says Becker.

In the entertainment model, everything hinges on customer demand and willingness to pay for their fun. In the serious gaming model, developers are more concerned about the goal of solving a real problem.

“Typically the person who pays for the game is the one that wants it made, rather than who wants to play it,” says Becker. “Mostly with entertainment games, the player pays.”

bridgeBODYSimulations, like this bridge deck, are examples of serious gaming. If a game’s primary purpose is something other than entertainment, it can be classified as a serious game. Photo courtesy of Flickr user Samantha Beddoes.

Stephen Huang, a Calgary-based entertainment game developer, sees great potential with serious gaming.

Huang says that kids aren’t as inclined to learn from textbooks, and believes serious games are extremely useful.

“If you talk to any teachers, they’re noticing a change to the way kids learn and communicate and all that stuff, says Huang. “I think there is a larger market for games to teach.”

From entertainment to education

Huang says that even languages can be learned through “serious games,” most notably with linguistic game software such as Duolingo.

“Manipulating human behaviour to achieve positive results is certainly not a bad thing when you’re trying to learn Spanish or Chinese,” Huang says.

Duolingo uses well-known incentives from traditional games to entice players to keep going.

“You get an achievement and a badge, and that’s completely irrelevant to learning Spanish, but still feels super good, so it’s that extra motivation to continue to learn,” Huang says.

As games become increasingly vital to how we live and work, our acceptance of the technology may change as well.

Huang says that both serious games and entertainment can work together.

“It can only bolster games and make people feel more comfortable around video games.”

Editor: Alec Warkentin |

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