Games, Gamification, Serious Games, and Simulation: Playing with the Terminology

At some point, between a youth misspent playing Dungeons & Dragons and war games, and an adulthood in nominally more adult pursuits such as studying game theory and observing and taking part in real life political games, I acquired a certain body of knowledge. And despite my best efforts, this knowledge has become increasingly useful and relevant. So for those for whom it didn’t seem natural to compose a 7th grade book report On the Red Fern Grows in the form of a game (one player played the ‘coons and naturally tried to escape the other players hounds) I’m going to try to jot down some basics about gaming and related concepts and their potential for worthwhile and less worthwhile activities.

Reflecting for a minute, I can see why there is room for confusion. The term “game” is applied very widely and loosely from anything played with dice and cards, recreational or gambling, Roman gladiatorial games, “Don’t play games with me”, “Don’t hate the player, hate the game,” to the twitchy first person shooters that put Tipper Gore in a fit.

The truth is, there isn’t a good single definition of what a game is. It’s something some people “play”, and probably has some element of fun, challenge, and or competition to it. It may be trivial (“only a game”) or it may be awful (“playing games with people’s lives”) and may be removed from or intersect the real world in various ways. Gamification, serious games, game theory, and simulation are key concepts for understanding how we can design and take advantage of intersections between the world of gaming and the real world. And I’m going to do this primarily with illustrative examples, as just as with games, they are rather fungible concepts, and resist simple definition.

An Epically Crap Game and Gamification

So Monopoly is a game. No denying it. You roll dice, draw cards, buy and develop properties, take money from your opponents, and hopefully (finally) bankrupt them all and emerge the winner. It is also crap from a design perspective, a board game should be fun but Monopoly games often stretch on forever even after the eventual winner is clear, resulting in frustration and boredom. Still, most people have positive associations with Monopoly. This is because there is something inherently pleasurable about sitting down with your friends and family, opening a box, and setting it up, and then rolling dice, drawing random cards, set making, buying and developing properties, and taking others’ money.

Let’s talk for a moment about set making. A big part of Monopoly is getting sets of properties that are all the same color (e.g. Boardwalk and Park Place) or collecting all the railroads or utilities. This activity is rewarded in the game, as by making a complete set you can extract more money from other players for yourself. Different sets have different values, but any set of properties is better than a mix of unmatched colors. Set making is an activity we see across a number of games, particularly card games. Kids start with Go Fish!, you try to get cards of the same face value, and then some move on to poker where bluffing, probabilities, and money create for a adult experience, but at the end of the day you’re still trying to make sets (e.g. flush, four of a kind, straight).

McDonald’s famous Monopoly campaign used the explicit theme from Monopoly as well as set making to increase customer engagement.

This suggests that there is something about the activity of set making in itself. It’s fun to make a full house or a straight. You feel like you’ve done something. In fact, a big challenge of poker is figuring out how to value this accomplishment vis a vis what your opponent has done. A beginner may very well get overly attached to his or her hand. This set making activity has a certain grip on human psychology, which means it has the potential to influence behavior.

And here we have the basis for gamification. Gamification is only related to pure gaming in that the designer isn’t aiming for pure recreation or competition. Rather he or she takes lessons from what people find fun (or even irritating) to motivate and modify behavior in non-game settings.

Far more productive than Monopoly for this hot and emerging field has been the fantasy role playing game genre. In Dungeons and Dragons for example players collected experience points to “level-up”. Now your online avatar can do the same thing through leaving helpful reviews on Trip Advisor.

Like a mage or warrior in a fantasy role playing game MargaretV earns points to level up on TripAdvisor

Like a mage or warrior in a fantasy role playing game MargaretV earns points to level up on TripAdvisor

Points, levels, badges, leaderboards and little bars that show you are 87% of the way to completing your profile, these have become staples of modern web communities. And community designers know very well that they give users a way to measure their progress, and their status vis a vis other users and that through gamification they (LinkedIn, Yahoo!Answers, can get people to undertake tasks they would not otherwise do on a voluntary basis.

Of course gamification insights don’t have to be used only to drive quarterly profits and shareholder value. Points, competition on leader boards, and card collection can also be used to change behavior in important real world settings. A great example is iChoose, a competition between employees at the Miron Construction Company to improve the sustainability of their daily routines. The routine behaviors were distinctly unsexy in themselves, not turning on the TV, taking re-usable grocery bags to the store, unplugging a second refrigerator. But they created cards that one could keep for completing certain actions, which gave a nice sense of accomplishment. And these cards had point values that were totaled up and displayed on a running online leaderboard so the employees could compare their progress to that of their fellow workers. Through cards and competition, gamification gave context and meaning and a sense of purpose to what would otherwise be mundane actions, and thus created a real world game.

Getting Serious 

And here we start to cross the boundary into so-called “serious games.” Actually, I don’t like the term serious game, as it is somewhat ambiguous as to what is being taken seriously. People play games such as Go and chess very seriously. I’ve known a few people who have paid their bills with poker. What we’re really getting at, as with the Miron iChoose game is that a serious game has some sort of beneficial social impact that we are concerned about outside of the gaming context. The social impact in the iChoose game was to promote more sustainable behaviors around the household. But not all serious games are real world games. Often a board game or a digital game is used as a medium in which players can experiment learn what the designers believe to be socially important lessons. Actually Monopoly itself has its origins as a serious game. The Landlord’s Game was created in 1904 to show players the pitfalls of unequal wealth and the socially destructive nature of monopoly. The original had two versions of play, one in which players pursued only profit and greed. The folly of this version was supposed to be self-evident and highlighted by the second version in which social justice prevailed. The Parker Brothers dropped the socially just version when it took over the rights in 1935.

Greed and rapaciousness may just be more fun.

A Design Interlude

I said above that Monopoly is crap. From a game designers perspective it is “unbalanced,” due to early luck someone can establish an insurmountable lead and there is little others can do to catch up. There is little interesting to do once the properties have been bought, and nothing to do except roll dice if you were unable to acquire a set of properties. And worse of all, it can go on forever. A Monopoly game once went on for 10 weeks. Most players just get bored and quit before reaching that point.

Due to its poor design and popularity any mention of Monopoly is sure to invite eye rolling from your favorite board game geek. If you want to restore your now agitated geek to equilibrium, and demonstrate that you are not completely in the Dark Ages when it comes to gaming culture, you should immediately follow any Monopoly reference with noting how much you enjoy “Settlers.” Settlers of Catan that is, which was dubbed by Wired to be a a “Monopoly Killer” and “the perfect German Game.”

Settlers is not altogether unlike Monopoly, it is also an economic development game and many of the basic elements and mechanics, dice rolling, set making, stealing resources from opponents, that we talked about in terms of gamification and Monopoly, are also in Settlers. But the experience of players is completely different. It can be easily played in an intense hour and a half and every player is usually convinced that he or she would have won if it hadn’t been for a run of poor luck or boneheaded and/or vicious decision from an opponent. With Settlers you don’t have to worry about being bored, but you may have to be prepared to answer a very peeved significant other about why you “robbed” him or her so frequently.

And here we have a certain and central truth. Game design is a design exercise, and we can design a game for any number of purposes, be they recreational or commercial, to lessen the environmental impact of household decisions, for competition, to build a sense of community, to educate, and even to convey truth and beauty.  And we can accomplish more than one of these ends a the same time. A game can be both serious and recreational, in fact if you hope that anyone will play your game it’s a good idea to give them a pleasurable and interesting experience.

Our limitations here are not any clear delineations between serious, real world, and recreational games, we have seen how Monopoly is derived from a serious game. Settlers can be turned into an educational game on the economics, social dynamics, and environmental consequences of fossil fuel exploitation with a nice little free add-on called “Oil Springs.”

What really matters with games, be they serious, recreational, or real world, is the design behind them. While games are better suited to some purposes than others, the limitations aren’t clearly set, but rather depend on the competence of the designer and his or her team and those of the game design discipline itself. And the discipline has in recent years broken through barriers in ways previously thought to be insurmountable and contributed to fundamental medical research (with players of Foldit discovering the riddle of how HIV enzyme is folded in three weeks), and abstract and mathematical game theory in social science research increasingly giving way to games with real people in laboratory settings. But these are only more recent developments, indeed, the most serious and destructive of human enterprises has a long a very developed practice with games.

Practice Battles

There is a fundamental problem with running physical combat scenarios in the real world. Equipment and property get destroyed, and people get killed which makes it devilishly hard to do multiple runs. Nevertheless, war is a high stakes affair and one in which training, planning, tactics, and strategy are of high import. It is also an uncertain affair in which innovation and experimentation can be either fatal or highly rewarding. To deal with these challenges people have been endlessly creative in finding ways to prepare themselves and their armies through the use of activities, games, and simulations.

On a very basic level we can see certain activities and sports, from jousting and fencing to target shooting, as gamifications of the basic physical skills needed to be successful in combat. Competition and rules are introduced in order to motivate investment and focus on activities that would otherwise be overly intense and dangerous (when done for real) or even mundane and dull (putting bullets in targets is more fun if you have others to measure your prowess against).

The two top intellectual board games have martial origins, Go and chess are built around territorial control and the killing and capture of opposing pieces. Both of these games are, however, highly abstract, while they may teach high level concepts around strategy, they yield few practical lessons. Real world castles don’t tend to move around.  But some chess players in the 17th century in current day Germany started to try their hand at building more realistic representations of battle. The modern war game was born when a version, complete with scale maps and dice, was shown to King Friedrich Wilhelm III and he was convinced of its value. Prussia’s decisive victory in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871) assured that war games and simulations became important tools for military planners, from WWII through the Cold War, to the present day. The Pentagon recently played out a war with Russia in the Baltic (with somewhat dispiriting results).

Like all the categories in this piece, the boundary between simulations and games is blurred. One can simulate historical battle, anticipate future battle, or completely fictional battle (say against aliens) on a board or on a computer, either to prepare for an actual battle, to train, or merely to entertain. Many simulations are designed primarily for pure entertainment, one need only look at the popular and commercial “Sims” series to get an idea how many variations they can take (Sim City, Sim Ant, Sim Life). The primary distinction  between a simulation a simulation always tries to represent some external situation.

The power of a simulation is that it allows us to deal with real life situations in a controlled and safe setting. Military trainers and planners discovered this out of necessity quite early on, but there is plenty of room for using simulation in any setting where the stakes are high and so is uncertainty and complexity. And in recent years we’ve seen simulations extended to help with firefighting and emergency response training and for urban, environmental, and landscape planning.

Advances in computing power and ICT mean that we can now simulate far more parameters and contingencies than Prussian military planners did on their maps and dice. Agent based models for example let us set up rules for individual critters or people and then set them loose in a computer environment and observe emergent behavior that arises from their individual decisions and local interactions. Such simulations have lead to a better understanding of the spread of rabies through foxes and more realistic modeling of commuter behavior for transportation planning. The U.S. Navy is trusting that its new flight simulators can provide such a realistic experience that it can use them as substitutes flying in actual aircraft, and thus save money.

As noted above these may or may not be games. The U.S. Navy is looking to create a realistic experience, but advances in realism for training purposes will most likely be applied for entertainment at some point. And while agent based models were developed for scientific purposes, it wasn’t long before someone used a popular modeling language (NetLogo) to create Tetris and the Legend of Zelda. Similarly, the data for the models themselves can be derived from games with real life participants. I’m a big fan and building a company on an approach that uses tabletop role playing games in conjunction with agent based models.

End Game

Well, I hope this has given the reader somewhat of an overview of some very rapidly expanding fields, and more importantly a little familiarity with some very hot but perhaps confusing concepts. While there is plenty writing on the subject from both the scholarly and the design perspectives I’d suggest the interested reader leave all the reading aside for some time, because well, it isn’t all that much fun. Check out what people are doing (a Google search for your industry and the Games for Change Festival are good starts), and try to play games that interest you. Attend a game-a-thon. And most of all try to enjoy what you’re doing. Because for all the talk about “serious” games a central insight to all of this is that fun and playful thinking can bring engagement, understanding, and creativity to very serious topics. So even if games aren’t your thing, they might very well be worth playing around with.