Serious Games

Editor’s Note: Today’s guest blogger is Michelle Boule, Social Sciences Librarian at the University of Houston. Michelle was one of the planners behind Five Weeks to a Social Library and she is an ALA Emerging Leader. Michelle blogs as Jane on A Wandering Eyre.

I am old enough to remember the Atari, but I was too young to own one myself. The gaming console of my generation was the Nintendo. We played Super Mario Bros/Duck Hunt, Zelda, and were shocked at the end of Metroid. With the introduction of Mortal Combat we were also the first children whose parents were concerned that all that spine ripping and blood in our games would harm our sense of right and wrong. Violence was not new in media, but it was new to have that much blood marketed to a younger generation.

Today there is a new movement in gaming that, while it does often focus on a violent world, its purpose is to raise awareness, instruct a new generation of good citizens, create new business models, train military personnel, or model surgery for doctors. These games are called serious games. Many of the military and medical games use 3D technology, the same technology used to build Second Life. The games that I find the most fascinating are the ones that are designed to create an awareness about a topic. Games for Change is a nonprofit group that supports individuals and organizations which are creating games that produce public awareness.

Darfur Is Dying is a video game that was created for a contest sponsored by mtvU and the Reebok Human Rights Foundation The contest asked students, game designers, and activists to create a game that would raise awareness about the genocide in Darfur. The result, Darfur Is Dying, is an internet game in which the player becomes a villager in Darfur and then must try to forage for water while avoiding capture by the Janjuweed. When your character fails to escape, and failure is the usual outcome, statistics are displayed about the life of people in Darfur.

On a lighter note, Escape From Diab is a game that follows a healthy youth who becomes trapped in a place called Diab where everyone eats only junk food. It was designed to teach kids about healthy eating habits. Planet Green Game, produced by Starbucks, allows a player to travel through a fantasy city, finding ways to decrease the CO2 emissions, and creating an awareness of changes we can make to slow global warming.

Serious games take educational games to a new level. They go beyond Oregon Trail and strive to teach people about the world in which we live in an interesting and engaging way.

What does this have to do with libraries?

Libraries have long been agents of culture and the gateways to information. Today, most of us realize that information can be presented to people in many different ways. The idea of serious gaming can impact libraries in both small and large ways.

A game could provide models through which we could better understand how people search for information. Consider a game in which a puzzle must be solved or some knowledge must be gained. How will the player gain the knowledge? What are the options open to the player? A game that modeled information seeking behavior, like useability testing, would give us insight as to what people do when faced with particular challenges.

We could also build games that teach information literacy. If a game were to present a problem to users, sending them down the path of information gathering, various kinds of information could be presented. The player might have to choose between scholarly and popular sources, information formats, and then synthesize the information into useable answers to the problem. What would a 3D version of the information highway look like?

Building games from scratch is out of the realm of most library budgets and expertise. However, it only takes one school with some grant money and an eager student of game programming to create a game that could be modified for many different settings. We use games in Information Literacy classes already, like quiz games, that can be easily translated into online worlds. What about an information literacy quiz game that takes place in a Second Life environment? If your university has land in Second Life, does the library have space there? Information modeled in an online environment can become almost anything from a maze, to an amusement park, to a fully formed world and story.

Games can be serious. Games can change the way we think about things and they are changing the way we acquire knowledge. More libraries are beginning to offer different types of gaming environments for patrons, like equipment or space for game playing, but I think we should also consider what we can create that will foster better information skills in our patrons.

20 thoughts on “Serious Games”

  1. Whenever I read the magic word, Atari, I think back to a wonderful computer system that ran rings around Macs and PCs that was condemned for being merely a “game machine.” And when I say Atari ST computers were good, they were better at handling Internet communications and desktop publishing as well as games. (That’s Die/|\Hard speaking!)

    Better writers than I have already talked about the values of online roleplaying games in terms of learning leadership skills, working in groups, etc. Another important skill I see coming out of that environment is simply “being in the moment.” Particularly in Second Life where the roleplaying is free form, you learn to adapt to another avatar’s assumptions and expectations on the spot. You have the resources of the Internet at your beck and call in that environment–your brain, so to speak, is enlarged and in that moment, you are tested to use that bigger brain. It’s also a transcribed moment, if you take the time to save the transaction. Thus, you can study it for where you went wrong or how you did well.

  2. Your post helped my pull many ideas about gaming together. I think that there is a lot for libraries to get from creating a game and we are in the midst of doing that but more importantly, I think, is what we need to take from gaming in terms of understanding our patron’s appetite for learning and interaction.

  3. Donovan,
    There are so many studies being done about how games can teach people everything from life skills to synthesizing information. You make some great points about Second Life. It will be interesting to see the different directions that 3D games can take us.

  4. Great new Serious Games Portal site !
    Has profiles of serious gamers, forums, blogs, news, pictures and video all in one place. Plus links to all the best serious games content including: blogs, forums, podcasts and communities. Find links to serious games companies and research centres.
    Customise your profile page’s look and contents. Paste in widgets, youtube, any html. Start a serious games blog or add an RSS feed of your existing blog. Import your flickr pics, comment on others videos, pictures and posts.
    It’s like mySpace for Serious Games !

  5. An almost perfect post. The only thing I would change would be the word “games.”

    I now almost exclusively use the word “simulations” when talking to faculty and administrators about this topic.

    It sounds more serious, serious enough to make it onto a budget line, but is still just as much fun…

  6. Great post Michelle! When I read your line, “Building games from scratch is out of the realm of most library budgets” it triggered a faint recollection…

    Someone at the Mid-Atlantic Library Futures conference was talking about this drop-dead amazing piece of free software called…wait for it…. SCRATCH ( that can be used by anyone to easily create games. I just took a peek and it looks cool. I’m interested in what someone smarter than me has to say about it 🙂

    Looking forward to seeing you in DC! -pete

  7. great post, Michelle. It is true simulations/games are learning tools and they have been used as such for eons. I would like to encourage those interested in gaming and literacies as well as gaming and community-building to attend the ALA TechSource Gaming, Learning, and Libraries Symposium to be held July 22-24, 2007 in Chicago. See for details. ACRL is collaborating with TechSource on this symposium. Content will be very rich beginning with Henry Jenkins of MIT and ending with Liz Lawley of University of Rochester!

  8. Good post, nice to see the topic raised. There is a remarkable amount of work/research taking place around digital game based learning. Information Literacy related digital games based learning is an area Chris Thomas and I are currently working on.

    As I was saying, there is some great stuff happening out there already looking at the ability of games to teach, or to facilitate in a player/learner the creation of new knowledge. Much of it is looking at modifying (moding) commercial off the shelf games (COTs), which allows for commercial quality environments and games to be created in a fairly accessible way (as opposed to scratch building).

    For some information on libraries and digital game based learning you can also go to:

    Information on our own research, looking at the ability of a COTS mod to deliver different types of information and facilitate learning can be found at:

    Some other examples digital game based learning research projects include:
    Quarantined (not a mod, but library based)

    Lots of neat stuff, looking at the necessary scaffolding for learning, community building, opportunity for and/or necessity of reflection etc. etc.

    Thank you,
    Jerremie Clyde

  9. The games, themselves, also represent an increasingly important corpus of primary source material for research – here’s a recent example from Illinois, in which a faculty member uses gaming magazines as a key data point in a study of youth behavior:

    And, while the photo isn’t included with the story on the News-Gazette Web site (, the image that accompanied this story in print was taken in the UIUC Undergraduate Library, where the professor was able to show off material from our Gaming Collection (

    As important as the question of how we make use of research into game-based learning for our own teaching (as we made use of research into active learning, problem based learning, case study learning, etc.), is the question of how this increasingly important (and very ephemeral and/or platform-based) corpus of materials will be preserved, described, and made available to the future generations of scholars and students. There’s something for everyone in the issue of gaming!

  10. It’s an interesting topic you’ve raised, but you don’t have to stop at simply creating a learning tool with the technology. is a great example of how the technology BECOMES the library. A multi-user game-based system with all the collaborative benefits of an mmorpg that is actually already deployed at NASA.

    The Nintendo Generation is hungry for an easily deployable collaborative environment that incorporates all the best video game front ends have to offer, not just as a learning tool, but as THE tool.

  11. I do agree that games can be a conduit in helping people learn to read. Some of my earliest games were story based games that read to me. Games can be easily created that allow a player to learn about the library and teach how to search for information. Technology is one of the reasons why the Dewey Decimal system is now obsolete. While I enjoyed looking through reference cards, the electronic listing is much easier. I think the best bet is to appeal to young people with games like Oregon Trail which is very fun to play and taught students about history.

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