Are Serious Games really Games?

serious games

A game is a goal-directed and competitive activity conducted within a framework of agreed rules (Lindley 2003). Or “A game is a system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome” (Salen & Zimmerman, 2003). The rules establish what a player can or cannot do, and what the behavioral consequences of actions may be within the world of the game. The game offers a structured and oriented context (meaning) to play which is a voluntary activity, intrinsically motivated, enjoyable and for recreation, in a non-real context, requiring active participation. Overmars (2007) stated that “playing a Game is about making decisions, taking control and reaching goals”. Prensky (2001) identified the following characteristics of games:

  • “Games are a form of fun. That gives us enjoyment and pleasure.
  • Games are a form of play. That gives us intense and passionate involvement.
  • Games have rules. That gives us structure.
  • Games have goals. That gives us motivation.
  • Games are interactive. That gives us doing.
  • Games are adaptive. That gives us flow.
  • Games have outcomes and feedback. That gives us learning.
  • Games have win states. That gives us ego gratification.
  • Games have conflict/competition/challenge/ opposition. That gives us adrenaline.
  • Games have problem solving. That sparks our creativity.
  • Games have interaction. That gives us social groups.
  • Games have representation and story. That gives us emotion.”

Games can be instantiated for serious purposes as they involve mental and physical stimulation and they allow developing practical skills – they force the player to decide, to choose, to define priorities, to solve problems, etc. When games involve social environments, sometimes involving large distributed communities, they support the development of social competencies. Games develop the users’ self-learning abilities (players are often required to seek out information to master the game itself), they allow transfer of learning from other realities and are inherently experiential with the engagement of multiple senses.

Serious Games (SG) are games that do not have entertainment as the main objective. They are a “a mental contest, played with a computer in accordance with specific rules, that uses entertainment to further government or corporate training, education, health, public policy, and strategic communication objectives” (Zyda, 2005). Serious games “are games insofar as they have rules, simulate behaviors, accept input from the player, and provide feedback within the context of the rules and behaviors” (Michael & Chen, 2006). So, even if the main objective of a SG is not entertainment, it must provide the user with a context that engages and motivates him/her. Or, in the words of Csikszentmihalyi (1975), the user should be in flow: “People are happiest when they are in a state of flow— a state of concentration or complete absorption with the activity at hand and the situation. It is a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter”.

Although in general we coincide with Michael & Chen’s view, but we have to raise the issue of fun in games and its voluntary use. Play is defined as a voluntary activity while serious games can be compulsory (as a training tool integrated in a course, for instance). Per se, that does not eliminate any of the game characteristics of the environment. But in a certain number of cases it can prevent the player from feeling the fun, enjoyment and pleasure associated with a game. This is a well-known effect with youngsters: when simply told they will play a game, they engage in it with fun but when told they will play an educational game (the same game), they immediately tend to reject it as part of a formal learning process. This can also happen with trainees that do not have the habit of playing games and reject a training action based on serious games (for lack of confidence or interest). For these users, these tools are educational and training applications and not games in Prensky’s sense. But that is also true when we play a game, for entertainment, that we don’t like: we do not feel the fun and enjoyment associated with a game – we get bored, anxious and reject it. That does not mean it is not a game but simply that it is a game that does not suit our gaming style. The same is true for serious games: even if they are games we cannot ensure that they will be fun for everyone and that they will be engaging and motivating environments for skill and competence development. An when we have a compulsory situation ti will be more likely that we’ll have a game that does not “feels  like a game” to a lot of users.


  • Overmars M., (2007), Game Maker Tutorial: Designing Good Games, YoYo Games Ltd
  • Prensky 2001   Prensky M. (2001). Digital Game-Based Learning, McGraw-Hill
  • Zyda 2005   Zyda M. (2005). From visual simulation to virtual reality to games. IEEE Computer
  • Michael & Chen 2006   Michael, D., & Chen, S. (2006). Serious games: Games that educate, train and inform (1ª ed.). Thomson.
  • Csikszentmihalyi 1975   Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1975). Beyond Boredom and Anxiety: Experiencing Flow in Work and Play, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. ISBN 0-87589-261-2
  • Lindley 2003   Lindley, C., (2003). Game Taxonomies: A High Level Framework for Game Analysis and Design
  • Salen & Zimmerman 2003   Salen K., Zimmerman E. (2003). Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals, MIT Press
Carlos Vaz de Carvalho


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