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There’s been a trend in academia of splitting games into a binary of ‘serious/educational’ vs. ‘entertaining’ and I think it’s lead to a lot of missed opportunities for good research.

Education and entertainment are deeply interrelated factors in gaming. Trying to separate games on this basis leads to an inevitably large overlap between two supposedly distinct groups. Influential academic works that try to define the term “serious games” as distinct from “non-serious” end up with a definition so broad that it includes all games, from bespoke educational software to mass consumer retail stuff. Here’s one example from the book Serious Games: Mechanisms and Effects (2009) an often cited (873 citations) work:

“…ever since the implementation of serious games as a new promising genre, its promoters and critics have been struggling to find a consensus on the definition of the term itself… Serious games can be customized digital games that were specifically and purposefully developed to educate…or they can be over-the-counter games that primarily entertain its users while also providing educational opportunities…to enter the discussion…we ask the reader to accept a fuzzy definition of serious games…as any form of interactive computer-based game software developed with the intention to be more than entertainment.”

The definition is fuzzy to the point of self-contradiction (something the chapter title “Explicating an oxymoron” acknowledges). It first states that regular games which also have educational components can be considered serious games, but then later says that developer intention is what matters, and only games designed to be educational fit the label. This kind of definitional vaguery leads to inconsistency in what “serious games” means to individual researchers, and consequently, to what they are encouraged to consider in each area.

Games are about more than entertainment and education. They’re an artistic medium too, right? If neither entertainment nor education alone (nor the two together) can fully describe the multiple ways that artists express themselves, then why are they the focal points? The intention of that artistic expression also has to be considered, as do its consequences both intended and unintended. Perhaps we can consider films as similar here? While entertaining, some might also be trying to make a point, or just express themselves in some way. Others might just want to fuck us up:

“I don’t know how much movies should entertain. To me I’m always interested in movies that scar. The thing I love about JAWS is that I’ve never gone swimming in the ocean again” – David Fincher

The key word there is “interested”, I think. Fincher doesn’t just want to be entertained by films, he also wants to be interested by them, and he finds being messed with/up interesting. Anyone whose watched his work in films like Se7en and Gone Girl, or Ari Aster’s work in films like Hereditary, or some of Darren Aronofsky’s stuff like Requiem for a Dream might appreciate that there’s more going on in these films than just entertainment. Entertaining isn’t the first word you’d probably use to describe a real-life car crash. Shocking is a better word, perhaps? Memorable, or unforgettable could be others. Watching these films is like craning your neck at the car wreck as you pass by. The point is entertainment is a word that doesn’t fully capture what’s going on, and in that same way that films aren’t that simple, games also aren’t fully reducible to entertainment alone.

They can be gruelling and unentertaining in a lot of different ways, from being messed up like those films I mentioned, or from requiring you to grind through hard work for a reward, a process that is entertaining, but also not fully described with just that term. Games can be (and are) assessed by academics in terms of their engagement too, rather than entertainment value. The industry too, from designers to analytics people, often think about games in terms of engagement, not just entertainment. Reducing games to this binary is a bit like having to place an X on the lifeline – there’s more to consider.

I think there’s been a trend away from this more recently, perhaps, but haven’t found data yet to support it. It’s just a general vibe, and perhaps it comes partially as a result of a lot more people writing about games seriously in general. I think that seems to be an increasing trend, so that’s encouraging, but much of the research over previous decades often feels a bit limited.

Treating all games seriously is difficult in a framework that labels only one subset as “serious”, right? The binary has an implicit hierarchy that I think has led many researchers to only ask serious questions of “serious” games, essentially limiting the chance for so-called “entertainment” games to contribute to important discussions and studies. There is some data to support this idea of a skew towards “serious games” when it comes to academics studying important things. When it comes to the ability for games to help with knowledge acquisition, one meta-study found only 3 papers on the topic focused on “entertainment” games, vs 29 focused on “serious” games<1>. Granted, that’s an old paper that reflects older historical trends, but it speaks to a kind of “lag” in academia understanding games more holistically. Perhaps that’s partly an age thing, but also maybe other factors?

Thanks for reading. Feel free to dive in on any of those questions, or share your own thoughts on the usefulness/risks of these kinds of categorization systems/frameworks.

<1> A systematic literature review of empirical evidence on computer games and serious games – Connolly, 2012

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